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  • Writer's pictureMike Freislich

Unlocking Business Agility: The Role of Strategy Execution

Updated: Apr 29


Strategy Great! Execution Bad!

Introduction

I have worked with a great many organizations over the last 25+ years of my professional career. One thing that strikes me as a common challenge, is the ability for organizations to have (meaningful) connection between the work happening at ground-level and the product or organizational strategy.


What do I mean by strategy?

In my mind, strategy is the coalescence of high level ideas, stories and desired outcomes in relation to a problem space, a product / business context / market, that serves to provide focus for achieving specific results in an otherwise noisy world of options. Great strategy connects the dots, the data points from the space in which we are operating, and inspires all people involved and impacted with a greater sense of purpose. The strategy doesn’t define “how” we will achieve results. Rather it clarifies “why” we want to achieve “what”, and by “when”. Great strategy is not static, rather it evolves with the learnings from trying to achieve it, together with changes in the operating environment as well as fresher thinking.

By this definition, we might see that the scale of strategy can span anything from a personal strategy to be more healthy, to a 25 year strategy for a large group of companies wanting to reduce carbon emissions, or perhaps even a strategy to enable building a new civilization on another planet.


Strategy Execution

“Strategy execution” is our ability to realize strategy by effectively ideating, planning and delivering on shorter term, testable increments that move us towards the high level desired outcomes outlined within the strategy.


When looking back across the organizations I’ve worked with, I notice a number of similarities that serve to undermine effective strategy execution. I’m not saying these things are all bad in every context, but together they start to form a pattern which explains - at least to me - the similarity in the results achieved.


  1. Only a few people in the organization are privy to the conversations and thought processes that incept and evolve the product or business strategy.

  2. Strategy lives in PowerPoint documents accessible to only a few people.

  3. Strategy is downloaded to the larger audience with little to no room for feedback and adaptation.

  4. It is expected that the strategy created by “the few” will be osmosed into the DNA of “the many”.

  5. Strategy lies dormant for at least 1 year before being evolved.

  6. Before the annual strategy review, managers and teams work furiously to retro-map the work they have done back to the strategy.

  7. Strategy changes too rapidly. We don’t stick to our guns long enough to achieve anything. Delivery happens slower than ideation a.k.a. gravity.

  8. People comprising the greater organization don’t know what the strategy is, or don’t connect with it.

  9. Strategy is ignored in operational reality because we “just have to do this thing now!”

  10. Tactical planning is not specifically connected to strategic outcomes.

  11. Frequent delivery is not reviewed against the strategy or there are no explicit, short feedback loops from operation to strategy.

In reality, this list is of course longer, but I decided to stop here, as these points already illustrate many potential areas for organizational improvement. These breakdowns in the communication of intent along with feedback and tying-back short term results with strategy that requested them, are all complicit in undermining effective strategy execution.


What can we do about it?

We need to make strategy explicit, visible and executable, and then we need solid coordination of the various teams and departments required in the value generating activities that will achieve the desired outcomes.


In this regard, there are a great many tools and techniques at our disposal. In the context of orchestrating an entire organization, a products portfolio or even a large product development effort, Flight Levels® provides a great lens through which to structure our thinking.


For strategy to be effective at guiding the organization, it first needs to exist explicitly. In Flight Levels® we don’t subscribe to any particular method of coming up with strategy. There are a plethora of good methods, tools and books on that topic. Rather we take the existing strategy and visualize it, categorizing elements of it as one of three types, namely:


  • Stories - The narratives that provide context for the outcomes we have placed focus on, including things like vision, outcome specific details, Wardley maps, indicators and so on.

  • Outcomes - Ideally we want outcomes to be measurable, connected and time-horizon bound e.g. long term, mid term and short term outcomes, where the short term outcomes contribute to achieving the mid term, and the mid term contribute towards the long term.

  • Flight Items - The high level pieces of work that describe the “high-level how”. These should be derived from the short term outcomes.

The beauty of the Stories, Outcomes and Flight Items or “SOFI” as we refer to this, is that it allows us to directly connect together the strategy items (Stories and Outcomes) with the high level work, still to be coordinated (Flight Items). SOFI is the inflection point between strategy and execution. Feedback loops and hierarchy-bridging collaboration is essential here. If we take the time to collaboratively build, populate and evolve these things on a visible strategy board, it is much more likely that we will have an explicit, visible and executable strategy (EVE). This is the work of Flight Level 3 which is all about strategy. Again, this could be in the context of a team’s technology strategy, a product strategy, a marketing strategy or the organizational strategy.


The next challenge to tackle is that of coordination of the many teams and departments around the high level Flight Items that connect directly to the strategy. Here we want to visualize the flight items on a board together with the path these items will follow towards realization (Flight Routes). High level work items are collected and copied to other coordination boards or team boards where they are further sliced into the individual pieces of work needed to be delivered in order to satisfy the highest level Flight Items on the Flight Level 3 (SOFI) board. This kind of “middle”, coordinating layer is called Flight Level 2, where all of the visibility and interactions between individuals, teams and departments are the focus.


From here, it’s a matter of doing the planned work within short feedback cycles in teams (Flight Level 1), planning and coordinating with other teams at Flight Level 2 and creating feedback loops to strategy (Flight Level 3) to inspect and adapt everything from the strategy to the things we’re working on.


Simple right?!

Simple? Not really. On paper, yes, and by yourself, kind of. But add 10, 100 or 1000 more people and things get mind-numbingly complex. Who do I include in change design? Who needs to support change from a position of authority? What about people that are too busy to change?


This is the space of change leadership. We need to approach changes to how we work incrementally, inclusively and of course iteratively within the confines of concrete, timed outcomes i.e. how should things look a month from now, and perhaps within 90 days? What are the key challenges that we are trying to solve for? What is the north star that guides us in our efforts to improve? How much time and effort are we willing to invest in improvement?

There are many questions to which we need answers, community agreement and commitment in order to make the resulting changes successful. The process or “flow” of change is best guided by someone with experience, and focused on meaningful improvements that surpass statements like “we need to be more Agile!”.


Conclusion

The problem of “strategy execution” is multi-dimensional, and requires the orchestration and across many levels of decision making such as : tactical, coordinative and strategic. And… you don’t need to start with everything at once!


Often I find starting by identifying where coordination needs to improve and co-creating a coordination system with people, teams and departments who have the need. Connecting strategy to an already well-running execution system could be a next step. This is just one of a multitude of choices, but the point is that embedding good strategy execution can be done step by step.


It is recommended that when embarking on changes such as this, that you engage the services of an experienced and vetted guide. Have a look at the Guides page on Flight Levels Academy website to start a conversation, or of course contact me at https://levelup.guide.


In Flight Levels® we have a number of workshops that help you with these various challenges, and I list them in no particular sequence. The entry point is dependent on where is right for you to start in your situation:


  • Flight Levels Introduction - Gain a clear understanding of flight levels through a self-paced online workshop.

  • Flight Level 2 Design - Build a coordination system for multi-team delivery. Ideally, you should already have a specific organizational area and need in mind.

  • Flight Levels Systems Architecture - Zoom out across your organization or a sizable piece of it, in order to determine the potential coordination systems (Flight Level 2), how they interconnect, how flight items move through this topology to generate value and establish a change flow or iterative and incremental plan to unlocking business agility.

  • Flight Level 3 Design - Build a strategy system (flight level 3) and connect it products, services or other coordination systems.


And remember… “Never Fly Alone!

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