Wharton@Work

June 2017 | 

Strategy Execution: A New Approach

Strategy Execution: A New Approach

As academic director of the new Effective Execution of Organizational Strategy program, Wharton management professor Nicolaj Siggelkow knew how he didn’t want to approach the subject. “Too often people are focused on just one piece,” he says. “They believe if they just get the right incentives or the right leader, implementation will follow. But if you don’t have the resources in place, for example, those things won’t matter. You need an entire set of interconnected elements to execute a strategy.”

Siggelkow says the new program is designed to provide that holistic approach. He first considered all of the common barriers to execution, which fall into two main categories: motivation and resources. Motivation includes organizational culture and structure, incentives, and reporting lines. Resources include teams, HR, and capabilities that may lie outside the organization.

With that framework in place, Siggelkow tapped faculty doing current research and working within companies in each of these areas to provide their expertise — all with an emphasis on applicability. “Each session has to provide tools that the participants can start using immediately. We ask them to come to the program with a particular implementation issue that they are working on, and the sessions give them new ways to shed light on it.”

The final day of the program is, in fact, a strategy execution workshop. Siggelkow helps participants apply their new toolkit, thinking through their implementation challenge as practically as possible. Individually and in small groups, they come up with specific steps they can begin to follow on Monday morning when they return to work.

Backing up, the program begins with an exploration of strategic planning. “Quite often,” Siggelkow says, “the problems with implementation begin in the formulation phase. It might start in one part of the organization, which then hands it off to another group to execute. That handoff often results in failure. Or the strategy might sound good but doesn’t fit with the overarching strategy of the organization, which is another reason implementation doesn’t happen.”

Recently though, organizations have moved away from using an isolated strategy planning group to involve others in the planning stage. It sounds great in theory, says Siggelkow, but the approach presents its own problems. “What you’re really doing by generating many ideas is raising the stakes for getting things done. It can easily backfire. People get excited about getting involved, they submit ideas, and then, often, nothing gets done. Those initially enthusiastic employees become demoralized.  Good luck if you plan to try it again,” he says.

Instead, if you want to include others and generate many ideas, have a plan in mind. “Choose initiatives that you can get resources for, that are consistent with your culture, and that are otherwise more likely to get implemented. Anticipate any challenges that might come up. Being aware of these issues ahead of time, taking a more systemic view, can help with execution.”

“Ultimately,” says Siggelkow, “the organization is an interconnected system. You can’t execute a strategy by focusing on only one element. Understand how various choices and activities interact with each other. That is the kind of broad perspective we help participants to develop in this program. They will come away with a holistic view that they can take back to work and begin applying immediately.”