The Bridge that Connects Strategy and Execution is a System

February 18, 2021
February 18, 2021 Jamie Notter

Everyone knows that you need the following two things in order to be successful and grow the impact of your organization:

  1. A good strategy.
  2. Disciplined execution of that strategy.

So how do we get there? Most associations start with a strategic planning session with the Board. For those of you who are, um, old enough to have been reading my stuff for more than a decade (remember the “Get Me Jamie Notter” blog???), you know that I’ve delivered my fair share of tirades against traditional strategic planning in the past. Heck, we had a whole section decrying the futility of strategic planning in Humanize. I still stand by those tirades. Traditional strategic planning flat out doesn’t work (just ask the Soviets). The good news is, most people don’t do it that way any more. Strategy sessions are more frequently about articulating purpose, defining direction, and establishing strategic principles that will guide decision making.

So let’s assume you’re doing it right, and you have a good strategy. Your next challenge is ensuring disciplined execution. To accomplish this, I see most leaders focusing on two areas: staff expertise and organizational processes. Good execution requires top talent and smooth processes, so anything you can do to improve in either of those two categories will help improve execution, right? Well, sort of. Yes, that statement is true, but it’s missing a hugely important point.

It’s not about disciplined execution in general; you need disciplined execution of YOUR strategy.

That means you must build a SYSTEM designed specifically to deliver on the promise of your strategy. What do I mean by “system?” I mean a set of interlocking processes and behaviors that, when implemented with rigor, will increase the odds that your strategic objectives will be met. So by all means, hire smart people and create efficient processes, but until you have built a system that is specifically designed to help you beat the odds, you’re leaving your success up to chance. It is this system that is the true bridge between strategy and execution.

Here are some components of that system that you probably need to work on:

Line of sight. Everyone in your organization must be able to quantitatively see how their activities are connected to the strategy. And no, creating an “operational excellence and financial stability” goal in your strategic plan (because anyone can connect their work to that) is not enough. So how visible are your strategic objectives to everyone in your current system? How are your people measuring the success of their own work and is there a connection to strategy?

Quarterly agility. If your system is based on an annual operating plan, you’re already off the mark. You can have big annual initiatives, but in today’s world every organization must be evaluating its current course on a quarterly basis and then making adjustments. You must identify—every quarter—what are the three or four things that are going to move you the most toward strategic success, and then focus attention and resources on those. Does your current system allow for adjustments like that? Can your budget be modified in the middle of the year? Can your individual departments shift their attention mid-year if that’s what your strategy requires?

Cultural alignment. Your culture is the glue that maintains the connection between strategy and execution, so your system must be constantly adjusting culture to support the healthy functioning of the system itself. If your line of sight is broken because some departments are not good at sharing information, then you need to run what we call a “culture play” to fix that (e.g., add information sharing metrics to performance management conversations). Are you currently identifying areas where your existing culture is causing friction? Do you have a team in place that’s monitoring the effectiveness of your culture plays?

There’s an old saying: the best time to plant an apple tree is twenty years ago; the second-best time is today. Make 2021 the year you build this system. Because you can’t grow without this level of discipline.

Photo by David Emrich

Jamie Notter

Jamie is a co-founder and culture strategist at PROPEL, where he helps leaders create amazing workplace cultures that drive greater performance and impact. He brings thirty years of experience to his work designing and managing culture, and has specialized along the way in areas like conflict resolution and generations. Jamie is the co-author of four popular business books, including the award-winning Non-Obvious Guide to Employee Engagement, and his fall 2023 release, Culture Change Made Easy. He holds a Master’s in conflict resolution from George Mason and a certificate in Organization Development from Georgetown, where he serves as adjunct faculty.