Walk Before You Run – Why You Need to Implement Strategy Before You Can Execute It?

By Alex Damico – CIMGlobal MD – USA & Canada

Like for-profit corporations, trade associations and professional societies need strategic plans. Plans define the goals and objectives of the organization which will lead to the fulfillment of their mission. Most not-for-profits have a 2-5 year strategic plan in place. These plans are typically developed by the ED/CEO working closely with the Board of Directors and often with the help of an outside consulting firm specializing in strategy. Fortunately, there are many excellent consultants working in this space, some with deep experience in the not-for-profit world.

However, having a great strategic plan and achieving it are two entirely different things. There are a number of studies concluding 60-90% of strategies fail to achieve their expectations. Many reasons are cited for why these failures occur but one of the most basic is that organizations don’t implement their strategy before trying to execute it. These words are often used interchangeably but I don’t think they should be.

To me, the key difference is implementation is all about capability (are we structured to succeed?) and execution is all about the activity (what do we need to do to succeed?).

Does this sound familiar? You’re the CEO of a successful trade association or professional society. Revenues are strong, your bottom line is positive, reserves are adequate and you’ve built a well-balanced and professional staff. The needs of the industry, professionals or charity you represent are evolving and you and your Board of Directors have worked with an outside consultant to develop a new strategic plan. It identifies goals and objectives for the organization which are designed to address these changing needs. Pretty standard stuff, right?

Most organizations want to get to work executing the plan right away. But is your well balanced and professional staff equipped with the right skill sets to take on the new programs? Is your existing FTE count large enough to handle the new work without minimizing or even dropping some existing programs? Does your current operating budget have enough slack to build and support new programs or are you willing to tap into those reserves?

It has been my experience the answers to these questions are often some form of

  • Not really, but we’ll find a way, or
  • We have good people, they’ll adapt, or
  • We’ll all just have to work harder until the dust settles

Organizations need to assess their capability to succeed before forging ahead to the execution stage. If you have great people who are ill-equipped to execute the new strategy, are you setting them up to be successful? If you’ve defined four new key programs that need to be launched to accomplish the goals where will the human resources come from to do that? If you have defined programs that require a new investment of $250,000 but you don’t have that money in your expense budget, how will those programs ever get built and launched?

Imagine you’re the coach of a soccer team. When you’re on defense, the goal is to stop the other team from scoring. You have the best goalie in the league who leads the league in goals against and anchors a great defense. However, when your team is in control of the ball, the objective changes. As the coach, do you tell that great goalie to run upfield and try to score? Of course not, it’s not her skill set. It can be the same when an organization changes its goals. You have great talent – for what you used to do. Is that talent suited for the new tasks?

I’m not suggesting that wholesale personnel changes are in order when a new strategic plan is developed. I am suggesting that during the implementation step you need to be sure the staff’s current skill sets align with the new goals. Maybe you can train existing staff, maybe you can move people around the organization, putting them in roles where they have the best chance to succeed or maybe you need to make some changes. Just don’t assume your great goalie will be a great striker.

What about the budget needs the new goals will require? Does the new strategic plan anticipate added revenues that will fund the new programs? Even if it does, that sometimes doesn’t happen right away. This is a perfect opportunity to assess ALL of your existing programs and consider sunsetting some that aren’t relevant to the new strategic plan. This typically frees up both expense dollars and manpower but is often the hardest thing for mission-driven organizations to do. Be brave, take action and be transparent to both your staff and members about why these programs are ending.

These critical elements of the strategy implementation, if considered and addressed up front will greatly increase your odds of a successful strategy execution.