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Pitch Perfect: Why Great Ideas Fail and How to Make Sure They Don’t

By Sara Patoff Last Updated on Feb 25, 2021
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  • Posted By Sara Patoff
  • Categories Project Management

To reduce failure rates and successfully deliver strategies in 2020 and beyond, organizations must overcome disruptive forces and flip posing challenges to opportunities and advantages. It all starts with aligning the organization from inside-out and outside-in. This article encapsulates how to conduct transformations and implement designed strategies following ten guiding principles. Supported by real world examples, the ten guiding principles explain the moral rules and basic truths your organization need to surmount in order to transform strategies into great results.

Why We Should Care About The Strategy Delivery Gap?

The rapid pace of changes in technology demands organizations to be prepared to steer new markets, unexpected market changes, competitor moves, and new customer demands. We all hear of the advent of Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Blockchain, Quantum Computing and Bioengineering. These technologies, though disruptive, also offer organizations enormous possibilities to improve their products and services, business models, and ways of working.

In 2017, Brightline Initiative sponsored a research with the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) to understand why many organizations fail to transform strategies into results. We undertook a global multi-sector survey with 500 senior executives from companies with annual revenues of $1 billion or more. The results show that among the main factors, organizations face challenges dealing with cultural attitudes, poorly managed resources and insufficient agility (The Economist Intelligence Unit, 2017).

As a result, many organizations fail to meet their strategic targets, as confirmed by a recent global survey conducted by Harvard Business Review Analytic Services (HBR-AS). We surveyed over 1,600 executives worldwide, and we found that only one-fifth of organizations achieve 80% or more of their strategic targets (Harvard Business Review Analytic Services, 2019). The rest fail to transform their strategic goals into reality.

Sustainable growth depends on delivering the right strategies the right way. Yet this is something that organizations appear ill-equipped to do. Transformation is often a needed step on the path to sustainable growth and realization of long-term strategic goals. Despite that, staggering 70% of large-scale transformations fail to meet their goals (Tabrizi , Lam, Girard, & Irvin, 2019). This is one of many reasons to believe that we need to transform the way organizations transform.

Suggested Read: Implementing PM improvement

The 10 Guiding Principles to Close the Strategy Gap

Our work at the Brightline Initiative is examining the intersections between strategy, implementation and transformation – and how to close the gaps. Our research suggests that business leaders need to follow ten guiding principles to be more effective at delivering their strategies.

1) Acknowledge that strategy delivery is just as important as strategy design

Be aware that strategy delivery doesn’t just happen automatically once it is designed! As senior leaders we invest substantial resources, creative time, and energy in designing the right strategy. Now, we need to give equal priority and attention to delivering it — before we move on to something else. At Steelcase, for example, senior leaders encourage employees to champion new strategies, and to get on the same page by promoting team engagement. They have what they call “Strategy Jam” – more than 3,000 employees around the world participating in a 32-hour, around the clock, live conversation about strategy, asking probing questions and offering opinions. “With the Strategy Jan, we were able to help employees see how their role supports this broader strategy of growth”, says Thomas Cook, Director of Strategy and Corporate Development.

2) Accept that you’re accountable for delivering the strategy you designed

Let’s not underestimate entropy! According to the Economist Intelligence Unit 2017 Global Survey in partnership with Brightline Initiative, 63% of senior executives admit that implementation is not seen as a strategic task, despite its crucial contribution to organizational success. Once you have defined and clearly communicated the strategy, your responsibility shifts to overseeing the progress of implementation so that the strategy delivers results and achieves its goals. As leaders, we are accountable for proactively addressing emerging gaps and challenges that may impact delivery. Without this discipline, rigor, and care, your strategy has little chance of success.

3) Dedicate and mobilize the right resources

Inspire and assign the right people to get the job done! We need to actively and constantly balance “running the business” and “changing the business” by selecting and securing the right resources for each — initiatives to run the business and change the business have different needs. The biggest challenge facing Sightsavers, an international non-governmental organization dedicated to treat and prevent avoidable blindness, was to unite a wide range of partners with varying mandates and vested interests. “The early part of the work was trying to get these partners to sit together,” says Simon Bush, Director of neglected tropical diseases at Sightsavers.

4) Leverage insight on customers and competitors

Don’t forget to look outside! The Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), a Century-old Agro-giant, facing global competition, smaller profit margins and a more tech-savvy consumer, started its transformation by monitoring the landscape for key market trends and gathering new insights from its ever-evolving business environment. Advantage in the market flows to those who excel at gaining new insights from an ever-changing business environment and quickly responding with the right decisions and adjustments to both strategy design and delivery.

5) Be bold, stay focused and keep it as simple as possible

Be bold, but keep strategy simple. Many of the delivery challenges you will face will be complex and interdependent. You need people who can get to the core of an opportunity or threat, understand the drivers, deliver the information, and take the action you need in the way you need it. To stay focused and keep things as simple as possible, Steelcase divides its strategic initiatives into three main categories: Now – projects that are closest to the core business and demand immediate attention; Near – near-term initiatives that require building internal capabilities to respond to market shifts; Far – investments in future projects with long-term shelf lives.

6) Promote team engagement and effective cross-business cooperation

Beware of the “frozen middle!” We need to govern through transparency to engender trust and enhance cross-business cooperation in delivery. A recent global survey conducted by Harvard Business Review Analytic Services, sponsored by Brightline, indicated that leading organizations place a paramount focus on organizational agility and bring cross-functional teams to the forefront when needed. At Saudi Telecom Company (STC), the key to successful strategy implementation is a strong foundation based on three elements: executive buy-in, stakeholder accountability and clear communication. “It’s really important for different groups to understand the role they play in achieving the company’s vision, and how their role contributes to the greater success of the company”, says Mohammed Alabbadi, Vice President of Strategy Execution and Corporate Performance at STC.

7) Demonstrate bias toward decision-making and own the decisions you make

Follow your decisions through to delivery! Commit to making strategic decisions rapidly. Move quickly to correct course, reprioritize, and remove roadblocks. Accept that you likely won’t have all the information you want, and rely on those you can trust to deliver sufficient reliable input to allow thoughtful decisions. For example, Gail McGovern, president and CEO of the American Red Cross, says that when Hurricane Harvey flooded Houston in the summer of 2017, the Red Cross loaded its volunteers onto Houston City dump trucks to help ferry residents to shelters. “That was quite a risk,” she says. “But when you’re in the business of disaster, you need to be able to constantly make fast decisions.”

8) Check ongoing initiatives before committing to new ones

Resist the temptation to declare victory too soon! With the right governance, leadership, rigor, and reporting capabilities in place, you can regularly evaluate your portfolio of strategic initiatives. Add new initiatives in response to new opportunities, but first be sure you understand both the existing portfolio and your organization’s capacity to deliver change. Actively address any issues you discover. According to the HBR-AS Research Report, the number one barrier to successful strategy implementation is “too many strategic and/or change initiatives at one time”.

9) Develop robust plans but allow for missteps – fail fast to learn fast

Proper planning and preparation prevent poor performance! Empower program delivery teams to experiment and learn in an environment where it is safe to fail fast. Discuss challenges openly, and adjust the plan as needed for success. At ING, employees are trained to adapt execution, but even the best-trained employees can experience failure. “Some of our most ambitious programs have had to change course in the last 12 months,” says Dina Matta, Head of the Global Transformation Office. She adds, “in an extreme case, we may need to stop a program and do something else, or fundamentally change our approach to strategy execution.”

10) Celebrate success and recognize those who have done good work

Inspiring people is part of your job! As a leader, you have to drive accountability and focus on delivery, but you also need to motivate those who do the work. Generously and publicly acknowledge those who demonstrate the leadership behaviors and program delivery capabilities that make strategy succeed, and ask them to share their experiences. “We’ve always recognized when someone writes a paper that gets published in The Lancet,” says Carlos Carrazana, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, Save the Children. “But now we’re actually recognizing our employees’ ability to help others within the organization deal with change in a positive way.”

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