Lost in translation – why good strategies can fail to deliver

When good strategies get lost in translation, it’s seldom because there’s anything fundamentally wrong with the ideas.

Instead, execution falls victim to a predictable series of leadership stumbles. After all, it’s easy to think that just because the board and executives signed off a new strategy that they must be aligned with it. Voting in favour is one thing. Understanding the full implications and being able to lead and communicate important changes consistently is quite another. This happens more often than you’d expect – around three quarters of the time even the most cleverly articulated and neatly drawn strategies perish once they hit the shop floor.

For leaders, thinking the hard work is over just because the strategy has been created is another man-trap. If you thought strategy creation was intense and occasionally painful, just wait for the execution. The complex changes demanded by today’s competitive market require a “one company” approach. This requires decision making that cuts across functional silos, engagement of the whole organisation and leaders that take accountability for end-to-end solutions.
This is uncomfortable, as it challenges traditional paradigms around autonomy, requires real teamwork and co-ordination across the entire business and demands more leadership time. By delegating too early, or oversimplifying the challenges, senior executives fail to engage with the reality of implementation, complex problems are delegated to a level where they simply cannot be resolved, and execution grinds to a halt.

So, how to avoid the pitfalls? To start with, there must be a deliberate rational and psychological journey of translation sitting between the strategy-creation phase and implementation. Otherwise the leadership team and organisation will not be properly aligned or committed and they will all fail.  Effective translation is not a linear process – leaders must embrace iterative decision-making to ensure that the right choices are made about what should be done and
how to execute. Strong leadership comes from having a deep understanding of the relevance of the new approach – the strategic “so what” ensuring a clear view of how the business will work post-implementation, how it will get there and how long that journey will take. Underestimating what it takes to achieve effective translation is an all-too-common mistake.

Effective implementation is all about focus. Quick wins are good, but myriad disparate projects and a dozen workstreams are not. Ruthless prioritisation and a less-is-more approach are essential for translating strategy into action and avoiding “initiative-itus”. Address the tough decisions early – too many organisations shy away from
them. Leaving difficult issues to be resolved in the implementation phase has scuppered many good strategies. Tackle problems by getting the right people in the right place in good time.

Ultimately, successful transformation requires getting the psychology right too. Plans always change, but ensuring everyone understands why change must happen is invaluable. This takes a strong and visible leadership which actively rewards the right behaviours while debunking old ways of working. It all comes down to walking the talk – consistently and for a long time.

Chris Wakerley is MD of Boxwood
020 3170 5897



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