The high-level executives, strategy staff and strategy consultants we have interviewed, have highlighted several risks in strategy implementation based on their extensive experience. We have summarized them to the following three areas:

Participation and meaning for employees is crucial for successful strategy implementation

“The best thing to do [in order to implement a strategy successfully] is if the users – employees, managers and customers – are part of the development of the strategy. If that is not possible, then they should at least be part of challenging and qualifying it” (Partner & Senior Consultant).

The practitioners highlighted the importance of getting employees, customers and managers involved and mobilized, since they are the driving force in taking the strategy from paper to reality. Strategies have to function in a social system, and they must take the humans into account. If the employees are not on board, and do not wish to make the change happen, it will not happen. They describes the benefits of involvement as 1) engaged employees who feel ownership of the strategy, 2) expert knowledge and inputs on the strategy and implementation and 3) qualification and validation on strategy elements. They highlighted the fact that employees are the experts of their work, so getting their inputs to the strategy formulation and implementation plan is valuable. Another important part of implementation is identifying how the strategy will affect the employees’ working routines. They described it as translating, negotiating or ‘designing’ the cascades of the strategy, clarifying what strategy means in a series of steps from top management via middle management to the ‘shop floor’.

Strategy formulation and implementation is an iterative process, but is often not treated as such

“There are many who delivers based on the plan rather than the reality. Often people do whatever they can to deliver what was agreed-upon in January – even if the world changes in September. Learning is a key aspect of strategy execution – you can never predict what’s going to happen, so you must focus on continuously learning throughout the project.” (Founder and CEO).

Practitioners highlighted the fact that a waterfall or ‘normal’ linear approach to strategy work is outdated and needs to be challenged. The problem with the linear approach is that the strategies end up not matching the reality of the organization and world. The world is changing rapidly and there is a lot of things we can’t uncover upfront. Practitioners argued that by integrating an iterative approach to strategy implementation it could create the much-needed flexibility for adapting to changes and situations that arise during implementation. Many practitioners explained that they are currently working towards this by setting a strategic direction or ‘vision’ rather than making a detailed implementation plan.

Identifying what and how to measure the progress of strategy implementation

An important part of implementing a strategy, is knowing how that process is progressing. Practitioners pointed to the uncertainty of setting too specific KPI’s upfront since there will always be a risk that you are measuring the wrong parameters. The main challenge here is identifying what to measure and how to measure it. Measuring the wrong parameters or measuring them in a wrong way is risky because it creates a wrong idea of the progress and achievements. This is even more difficult when it comes to innovation strategies; how do you for instance measure the successful implementation of Design Thinking? Is it the number of ideas created throughout a project? Or the number of people involved in co-creation sessions? How do you create KPI’s for measuring the commitment, motivation and mobilization of the employees, which we have learned is a key aspect of a successful strategy implementation?

An interesting point to take from this, is that the challenges outlined above are all familiar challenges in product design and Design Thinking. This poses the idea that maybe Design Thinking could be an interesting approach to address these risks? You can read more about our response to this idea here.