It is often said that a strategy doesn’t fail in its formulation but in its implementation. I don’t agree. I believe that in many cases strategy simply falls through the gap between formulation and implementation: it fails in its translation. Many leadership teams, in their excitement and enthusiasm to turn their strategy into reality, fail to take the necessary steps to ensure that the strategy is sufficiently grounded and that the organisation is able and geared up to deliver it.

A $500 million consumer services business I worked with had invested heavily in developing a compelling new strategy and direction. The executive team was excited about the new opportunities that were being uncovered and had set ambitious and demanding growth targets, and changed the performance measures accordingly. The CEO and his senior executives had also spent time with front-line service managers communicating the vision and the high-level strategy for achieving it. However, over the following months the CEO became increasingly frustrated that the organisation was failing to make sufficient progress towards the new goals and targets.

As we investigated we quickly discovered that there were three barriers preventing the organisation from delivering the new strategic agenda:

  1. Individual accountabilities had not been re-set. Managers had the new KPIs, but their own performance objectives had not changed. Individual success criteria did not reflect the new organistational success criteria, and there was general confusion about what was expected.
  2. Talent had not been re-deployed. The new agenda demanded that the people across the business work differently, with a far greater focus on providing an outstanding customer experience. The roles, however, were exactly the same as the previous strategy. The best people were still in their previous positions and there were no clear champions for the new, ambitious growth agenda.
  3. Resources had not been re-allocated. Underpinning these failures was the fact that resources had not been proactively reallocated away from the old activities and projects and into the new priorities. In essence, the projects that were driving the old strategy were simply re-packaged under the new one, and none had been dropped or fundamentally re-scoped.

The result of these failures was that the organisation made little progress. The situation was like that of a novice rider trying to get a stubborn horse to move. There was a lot of shouting about what the company wanted to do coming from the saddle, but the executive team were unable to shift their collective weight and provide the required kick-start to get the organisation moving in the right direction. They failed to translate their high-level intentions into focused action on the ground. They were lost in translation.

You cannot leave your strategy at 50,000 feet. The success of your team or business is based on your ability to bring it down-to-earth so that your people can implement it and deliver ‘ground-breaking’ results.