The 5 Questions That Help Your Strategy Survive

90% of strategic plans fail.

Think about that.

You do the hard work. You create an inspiring new strategy to deliver value to your business. You run it by everyone who needs to approve it. You manage to get a consensus. You finally receive sign-off. You launch your program to great applause, excitement, and expectation.

And you only have a 10% chance to actually deliver on that strategy.

In our experience from driving strategy implementation for large-scale IT organizations, we’ve found there are five key questions the strategically successful 10% ask—and that the 90% of strategic leaders who fail do not ask.

These five questions are:

Question 1: “What are my strategy’s target metrics for success?”
Question 2: “What are my annual priorities?”
Question 3: “What are my Signature Initiatives?”
Question 4: “How do I get my people on-board with my strategy?”
Question 5: “How do I keep the excitement going?”

Let’s dig into each question, and see how answering each question will increase your chances of keeping your strategy alive long enough to deliver real value.

Question 1: “What are my strategy’s target metrics for success?”

Setting target metrics for your strategy produces several benefits.

These metrics objectively define:

  1. Where your strategy will take you.
  2. Where you are starting from.
  3. How you are progressing towards your strategic objective.

However, the subjective benefits of setting target metrics are even more powerful. Creating—and tracking progress against—a set of target metrics proves that you are serious about making a change. It tells your stakeholders you are backing up your big strategic talk with measurable actions.

But most important, it helps your strategy feel more “real” for everyone involved. When you set down a multi-year strategy, the end goal will always feel far away. By setting concrete metrics, you make your strategy feel “real” from day one. And by tracking your scores annually, you produce a sense of continuous, concrete progress towards achieving your strategy.

The specific target metrics you set will depend on the unique objectives of your strategy. Take the time to define them, track them, and report on them.

Question 2: “What are my annual priorities?”

Even when you set target metrics, it is easy to lose focus. As you work through a 3-5 year strategy, your people will naturally begin to wonder:

  • Are we really living our strategy?
  • Are we really on path to achieving our strategy?
  • Are we doing the right things to achieve our strategy?

It’s your job to answer these questions before your people ask them. The easiest way to do this: give your people smaller, 1-2 year-long strategic objectives to focus on achieving.

Each of these strategic objectives will contribute to achieving your larger strategy. But it is easier to remain focused on a one year goal, and it is easier to see how your actions contribute to an objective a few months off, instead of a few years off.

Again, the specific 1-2 year-long strategic objectives you set will depend on your unique strategy. But we have found almost every IT organization needs to begin with the same priority: get your infrastructure in line.

No, this initial phase does not sound “strategic”. But it is impossible to successfully implement any strategy if your infrastructure and operations teams are not consistently delivering world class fundamental IT services first.

Question 3: “What are my Signature Initiatives?”

IT organizations face one big, hidden problem when they take their hands off the technology, and begin to think, talk, and act strategic.

The problem is simple: Strategy is conceptual, but IT people are anti-conceptual.

Yes, there are exceptions. But even VPs and CIOs still often think in terms of the hard technology itself. And to your stakeholders, your IT group will always be the face of the systems you run.

Fair or not, this is a foundational reality for IT. And a big barrier IT faces when they try to “step up” and bring a strategy to life.

Don’t fight this impulse. Instead, bring IT’s unique flavor, value-set, and approach to the world of strategy. Pick the 5-7 projects or systems that really exemplify your strategy, and name them your “Signature Initiatives”.

Talk about them every chance you get. Talk about them before you talk about your other projects and systems. And whenever anyone asks about your strategy, point to these projects or systems and say, “These are what our strategy is all about.”

Don’t try and make IT more conceptual. Instead, make strategy more concrete.

Question 4: “How do I get my people on-board with my strategy?”

You can boil strategy implementation down to one core action. You repeat this action many times, in many variations. But it’s the same action: You have to connect the dots between your strategy and the day-to-day actions of your people.

You do this when you connect your strategy to:

  • Target metrics your organization scores itself against.
  • Annual objectives your organization aims to achieve.
  • The systems and projects your people have their hands on.

And, most directly, when you connect your strategy to:

  • The day-to-day activities and objectives your people are working on right now.

Most of your IT team members will not sit in on your strategy meetings. They will not directly contribute their thoughts to it. They will not make final decisions about what new value they now must produce for the business. This is the nature of strategy formation.

But when you tie each IT team and team members’ work to new objectives, and explicitly state how those new objectives contribute to the overall strategy, you transform everyone in your IT organization into a strategic contributor. McKinsey found this simple action makes all the difference in strategic implementation.

Shift your people’s objectives to align with your new strategy. Explain the connection between their work, and the new strategy in words your organization, team, individuals, and stakeholders understand. And, most important, measure and report quarterly on these new objectives to keep this feeling individual strategic contribution alive.

Question 5: “How do I keep the excitement going?”

Strategies rarely crash and burn. They usually fizzle out. They start with a bang. Everyone gets excited. And then the next crisis arrives. People get caught up in their day-to-day. Everyone loses focus. The strategy loses clarity. The momentum dies. And a year later, the strategy has not progressed. It now sits on the shelf.

Attaching your strategy to metrics, objectives, and even technology systems and projects helps. But it’s not enough. Left on their own, these connections will fade. You have to keep recreating these connections. Keep drumming up excitement. Keep the strategy top-of-mind for everyone, no matter what else is going on.

The secret to keeping the excitement going is no secret. It’s constant communication.

It sounds simple, but almost no one communicates their strategy often enough. Fortune magazine found that 86% of business leaders spend less than an hour a month talking about their strategy. (The result: 95% of workers didn’t understand their organization’s strategy.)

What does it mean to communicate the strategy often enough? Here’s our checklist for an IT organization’s minimal required strategy-focused communications:

  • Regular internal and external strategy updates
  • Dedicated strategy updates for the business’ executive committee
  • Annual measurement of stakeholder feedback on IT’s progress and target metrics
  • Quarterly stakeholder updates
  • Quarterly progress checks with the IT Leadership Team
  • Profiles and articles about your people and projects that exemplify their “success” with the strategy
  • Updated logo with branding that expresses the new strategy
  • Office posters and banners that express and explain the strategy
  • Swag with the strategy’s logo that people can put on their desk (pens, sticky notes, key chains, etc.)
  • New mass-use PPT template that includes the new strategy’s logo

It sounds like a lot. It is. But if you want to keep the excitement going for your strategy at all times, you must talk about it at all times.

It’s Time to Answer These Questions for Your Strategy Implementation

To be brutally honest—it’s best to answer these questions while you are forming your strategy. The more you bake your answer to these questions into the strategy itself, the more successful your strategy will be.

But the second best time to answer these questions is today. The sooner you can align your target metrics, objectives, and systems and projects to your strategy, the better. And the sooner you begin to communicate your strategy—over and over again—the sooner your strategy will regain its strength and excitement (or maybe even bring it back to life).

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