Implementing a Business Strategy: "Without Successful Initiatives, Strategy Implementation Is Impossible, and Companies Cannot Make Acquisitions, Create and Commercialize New Products, Enter New Markets, Forge and Maintain Competitive Advantages, Establish or Enhance Brand Equity, Drive Costs out of a Supply Train, or Develop Talent."

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HERE IS THE CHALLENGE of strategy implementation. Which would you choose: a brilliant strategy poorly executed or an unspectacular one brilliantly implemented? Granted, it is not an especially attractive choice but, based on our consulting experience, we would recommend the latter. The number of bad strategies that are well implemented is dwarfed by the number of good strategies that are poorly implemented.

Consider the following: Former Sony CEO Nobuyuki Idei was among the first executives to see the potential in the convergence of media and electronics. He forged a vision of a Sony that would offer an entertainment package containing content and the hardware for its delivery. Maybe it was the wrong strategy; we never will know, as Idei was not able to put into place the processes and structure to implement it. Concerns over piracy slowed down development.

Lynne Camp, vice president and general manager of Agilent Technologies' Systems Generation and Delivery Unit, wanted to forge a single global company. Few people questioned the degree to which accomplishing that goal would create a strong competitive advantage. However, that vision crumbled under the weight of interfunctional squabbles, slow executive decisionmaking (out of fear of taking their eyes off ongoing responsibilities), failure to involve the "best and the brightest" in strategy implementation, and communication that was limited to behind-closed-doors sessions.

The European Union created the "Lisbon strategy," which established an ambitious mission: building the most competitive economy in the world by instituting business-friendly policies that would invigorate the economies of all countries. That lofty goal was not achieved because it died of asphyxiation after its translation into 28 "objectives," 120 "targets," and 117 "indicators."

Make no mistake about it; the ability to implement strategy can be a career booster--or buster. Leadership experts estimate that 70% of CEOs who fail are ineffective not because their vision is flawed, but because they are unable to implement that vision. Not surprisingly, "execution" has become a mantra on mahogany row.

So, just what is strategy? It is the framework of choices that determines the nature and direction of an organization. For example: What products or services will be offered? What markets or customer groups will be targeted? What emphasis will be placed on both? What future capabilities are needed? What are the future financial, size, and growth expectations? Plus, the big payoff question: What is the future competitive advantage? A strategy says, "We have finite financial and human resources, and here is where we are going to spend our hard-earned money and dedicate the precious time of our talented people."

Once decisions have been made concerning fundamental strategic matters, a less glamorous, but just as important, question emerges: How is vision transformed into reality? This is the mother lode of strategy implementation. From it flow the initiatives or projects that will move vision from the mountaintop to the marketplace. For instance, we facilitated the deliberations of the top team of a small, closely held industrial component manufacturer as its members considered a number of growth alternatives. After healthy debate on the merits of international expansion and entering new domestic markets, a growth strategy that centered on new products had been forged. While they had defined a product development process, that process was slow, costly, followed inconsistently, and produced few winners. The team launched a strategic initiative to ensure that this process was designed appropriately, staffed, information technology-enabled, funded, and followed.

We guided the strategy of a large consumer products company whose top and bottom lines were being eroded by Asian imports that were equivalent in quality and lower in price. After evaluating and rejecting a number of alternative paths out of this thicket, the top team made two strategic decisions: to partner with a small set of Chinese manufacturers and establish order-fulfillment cycle time as a competitive advantage. …