Timing is essential in the strategy execution. However, getting the timing ‘right’ is hard: if senior managers push a strategy too quickly through the organization, the strategy does not ‘sink in’ the organization, senior managers may lose potential allies, not involve relevant stakeholders and the strategy execution is likely to fail. If senior managers are too slow, they lose the momentum, and people may be demotivated, the strategic initiative loses priority, and again, strategy execution fails. How could senior managers get the timing right?

We conducted inductive empirical study based on 35 interviews with senior managers, from CEO to project managers, to find out more. Our findings suggest that senior managers face four temporal dilemmas to time strategic work:

  • Time horizon dilemma: Our interviewees pondered their level of ambition. They argued that while strategies are about the future, how ambitious could they be? How could they balance the need for realism and idealism? While long-term horizon allowed for ambitious goals, they could easily become abstract and unrealistic; in the meanwhile, short-term horizon was concrete but only allowed to solve minor operational challenges and lacked ambition.
  • Urgency dilemma: Our interviews suggest that pressing for urgency needs to be balanced with time for reflection. They reported being frustrated with the need to both set up a sense of urgency for initiating and engaging in the project, while also allowing ideas to ‘sink in’ slowly which often resulted in slower processes. Managers often found it challenging to understand when to suspend urgency and when to continue pushing for delivery.
  • Process dilemma: most interviewees attempted to follow classic organizational change and strategy deployment models from textbooks and consultancies. However, they also recognized the need for iteration and modification of sequences of work established upfront. Their dilemma here was to choose between the need and expectation to ‘stick to the plan’ or allowing necessary adjustments and iterative work to progress the project.
  • Rhythm dilemma: organizations have a heartbeat: Monday meetings, progress review every third month, strategy planning every three years etc. However, the rhythm of the project, our interviewees reckoned, did not necessarily fit the rhythm of the permanent organization. Part of their work was to entrain the project rhythm in the organization and balance the extent to which they could leverage organizational rhythms in their project work and when they had to interfere with them.

Timing the execution of a strategy can be challenging and constitute an important risk. The study explores simple practices involved in getting the time right.