Implementing Your
Business Strategy
By Bill Birnbaum, CMC
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Successful Implementation is No Accident

Too often, managers ask the question of "how to implement" far too late. They start thinking about implementation only after they've develop their strategies. That's a mistake. They should take implementation steps both before and during strategy development as well. Think about this...

Imagine that you're walking up a hill. Not just for the fun of it. And not for the exercise. But because you'd like to develop your strategic plan while standing on top of the hill. Then, after you're all finished developing your plan, you'll walk down the other side of the hill.

Walking up the hill corresponds to your "getting ready" to develop your plan. Standing on top of the hill corresponds to the time you're actually developing your plan. And walking down the hill corresponds to the time following your development of the plan.

There are specific implementation steps we should consider during each of these times: walking up, standing on top, and walking down. Let's look at each of these three sets of implementation steps separately...

Pre-planning Implementation Steps

Well before your strategy sessions, you have opportunities to "lay the groundwork" for implementation of your resultant strategies. The first step – perhaps the most important step – is to demonstrate managerial commitment. Commitment to the planning process and to the resultant strategies within the plan. You'll need to demonstrate commitment, not just by word, but by deed as well. By giving your own time to the planning process. And by demonstrating your readiness to allocate the necessary resources to the resultant strategies.

Next, you must select the "right" planning team members. They'll come from the ranks of top management – probably your key functional managers. This brings to your strategy sessions the expertise necessary to develop the plan. Also, it makes possible the necessary immediate strategic decisions. And it involves the key executives in development of the plan. Thus encouraging their commitment to the implementation they'll later direct.

You must gather the "right" information before developing your strategies. Not just the obvious – the financial reporting information. But also information about your customers and the benefits they seek in purchasing your products and services. Why they buy. Why they don't. And information about your competition. Their strengths. Their weaknesses. And how their offering compares to yours. Successful strategies follow from your management team's full appreciation of your enterprise and its relationship to its marketplace. You need the "right" information to establish and up-date that team-wide awareness.

Also before planning, you should solicit input from your employees. To get them involved in the planning process. To "flush up" issues they feel are important.

This participation builds necessary commitment. Employees who havie the opportunity to participate in developing their company's strategic plan feel "a part" of that plan. They're committed to the success of the plan and to the successful implementation of the strategies within that plan.

At his company's strategic planning retreat, the Vice- President of Marketing for one of our client companies remarked, "The managers in our marketing department are eager to see this plan. They've provided much of the initial input for this session, so they're looking forward to implementing the resultant strategies."

While-planning Implementation Steps

During your strategic planning sessions, you have additional opportunities to encourage successful implementation of your resultant strategies. First, you can encourage participation from all members of your planning team. You can work toward rich, lively discussions on all issues. Solicit input from the more hesitant, and, if necessary, temper the more domineering individuals. To do so, you must be sure the facilitator of your sessions has not only expertise in the planning process, but also, skill in handling the planning team's interpersonal dynamics.

You can also encourage implementation through focusing. Focus on the most important things. On what it takes to win. On your key success factors. On those few activities that will make you successful. Focusing on doing these "right things right" will not only concentrate resources, but will concentrate resources on those factors which are most important.

You can encourage implementation by developing objectives measurable by your current reporting system. You'll be busy enough implementing your plan; you don't want to pioneer a new reporting system at the same time. For example, all companies report sales volume; but few report market share. For good reason. It's difficult to get agreement on the total market size used in calculating market share. And even if you could agree on total market size, data on market size is never available right now. This lack of timely information means you can't use a market share objective to manage your business day-to-day. For these reasons, market share is most often viewed as an approximate, rather than an exact measurement. It makes for a poor objective.

But suppose market share is important to your organization, as it is to many. If so, you can write your objective in terms of sales volume. Then you can estimate total market size, and put that estimate in your list of "planning assumptions." Finally, in an appendix to your plan, you can divide your sales objective by your estimated market size to arrive at your intended market share. That way, you'll have an objective (sales volume), whose measurement is familiar to, and accepted by, those who must accomplish it. And just as important, it's a measurement that's available right now. So you can use it as a day-to-day tool in managing your business.

Also while planning, you can encourage successful implementation of your strategies through developing a "balanced" list of objectives. By having one or more objectives dealing with human resource issues – working conditions; career development; benefit programs. More of your employees care about human resources than about sales volume and profit. Having a human resource objective, when those employees – whose help you'll need in implementing your strategies – ask "What's in it for me?", you'll have an answer.

You should also develop strategies built on your company's strengths. If you're strong in marketing, you'll best implement a strategy calling for promoting your way to success. If you're good at product development, you'd best invent your way to growth. And you shouldn't select a strategy just because it's "popular" or because "it worked" for another firm. It's got to work for you. It must be built on your own company's strengths.

Also, you'll have to consider available resources. That means you need to estimate the resources required to implement each strategy. You must be careful about over-committing those resources – particularly people. There's a fine line between challenge, which encourages implementation; and over-commitment, which discourages implementation. Be careful.

Finally, while developing your strategies, you should include a "built-in monitoring system." Have a key manager volunteer responsibility for implementing each strategy. That manager's name, along with a due date for completion, then becomes a part of the strategy statement. Including a name and a due date aids in monitoring the strategy's implementation and in assuring that a key manager "owns" each strategy.

Post-planning Implementation Steps

Following development of your strategies, you have additional opportunities to encourage implementation. First, you can communicate the plan to the folks who will help with its implementation. In fact, one of the two questions we ask of client-company planning teams at the conclusion of their strategy sessions is, "Now that we've developed the strategic plan, how do you feel you should communicate it to your employees, and to which of your employees do you think you should communicate it?"

And there's no singular "right answer" to the question of communication. The point is, since you'll need your employees' help in implementing your strategies, you'd better tell them what you're trying to accomplish. Consider the following...

We worked with a mid-sized manufacturing client in Los Angeles. We had just completed the organization's five-year strategic plan, and were about to begin work on its one-year operational plan. The company's executive planning team decided to ask their supervisory-level managers for input regarding objectives for that one-year plan.

Asking for that input was very important for the company at that time. Because in August of that year, the firm was going to move to a new facility. Close down the factory for an entire month, pick up all the machinery, load it on trucks, drive it over to the new factory, plop it down, wire it up, and go back to work. A good chunk of the month's production would be lost in the process.

This was no small issue. No small issue for production; no small issue for sales; no small issue for customer service. The company's executives were concerned about the objectives they could realistically set for that first year – the year of the move. Following development of the five-year strategic plan and prior to development of the one-year operational plan, we made a presentation to the company's supervisory-level managers. We introduced the strategic plan, and asked for input regarding the one-year plan and its objectives.

We got back the kinds of answers we went looking for. We got back information which included the opinions of supervisory-level managers regarding the objectives they were comfortable biting off that first year. But we got one more thing. One very important thing. Something we didn't go looking for. And that was motivation. The supervisory-level managers said things like "We're working for a professional organization – we're planning." It seemed that the planning process spread motivation throughout the company.

But it wasn't the planning process, per se, that encouraged motivation. The supervisory-level managers weren't "turned on" to their company simply because their executives were planning. Rather they were turned on because their executives asked them "what do you think?" Their executives demonstrated they cared about their supervisors' opinion. Communication leads to motivation and, in turn, to successful implementation.

You can also encourage implementation through linking your strategic plan to your operational plan. You can ask each manager responsible for a specific strategy to take that strategy back to his or her department. And there, ask those employees who will implement the strategy to develop tactics or "action steps." Ask them to assign responsibility for each tactic; to set due dates; to project required resources.

But what about strategies which require the collective efforts of two or more departments to implement? Those are a bit more complex. Here, each department must still develop its own list of action steps. But each department must also consider the action steps of the other departments on which its own performance is dependent. For example, a strategy calling for development of a new product would involve efforts (action steps) by the R&D, marketing and production departments – the activities of each clearly dependent on those of the other two. To implement such strategies, management must encourage inter- department communication, understanding and cooperation.

To successfully implement your strategy, monitoring is an absolute necessity. Your department managers must monitor their tactical plans. And your executive planning team must monitor the strategic plan. That way, if the strategy isn't happening, you can consider your options – changing the strategy, changing its implementation, or changing its due date.

Finally, you should watch for opportunities to "fine tune" your planning process. This will help with implementation of your strategies in later years. You might, for example, at the third quarterly review of our strategic plan, take a little extra time to discuss the planning process. To look back on your strategy development sessions. To ask, "what went well?" And "what didn't?" And "what changes might we suggest for next time around?" Changes to improve the plan. To improve its implementation. To "fine tune" your planning process so it better fits your company's specific needs.

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