Executing a strategy without engaged people is impossible, and brilliant strategies without execution are meaningless.

I’ve long believed that the purpose of strategic planning is not to create plans, but to change how we think and act. It’s not the plan, but the action, that matters. Strategy is not brilliant in and of itself; its value is determined by how well people execute it.

In many cases, execution refines and even revises the best-laid strategic intentions. So, the essence of success is people - people who understand the stated direction and who start to implement their own innovative ideas, experiments, and behaviors to iterate on the original strategy, so that it becomes something even more refined, succinct, dynamic, workable, and valuable.

Military strategist Helmuth von Moltke said, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” This means that when your battle plan meets the real world, the real world tends to win - or at least changes the plan pretty significantly.

In my experience, there are three practical ways to encourage and support strategy execution though people, by encouraging people at all levels start the experiments, engage the enemy, and be practitioners of the “try-test-learn-revise” school of strategy execution.

  1. Challenge, Air Cover, Celebrate. One of our clients involved every person at every level of the business in assessing and executing on their new strategy. He wanted his people to view what they were doing through new strategic eyes. This meant they had to:
    • Challenge anything they thought was out of step with the new strategy.
    • Get air cover or sponsorship from their leader to try experiments that better embodied what they thought was the desired strategy direction.
    • Celebrate the successful results of the experiment (or the lessons learned from failure).

Dozens of strategy-in-action stories emerged that helped people see what the new strategy meant, and how they could be part of executing it successfully.

  1. Keep the Feedback Loops Well-Greased. The best-executed strategies are the result of a continuous communication loop with front-line employees and managers who are asked to try new things. Consider your people as intelligence officers of your strategy. Seek their feedback. They’re the ones who will have the best input and who have heard customers’ comments, and they can express whether these factors are differentiating the business in ways they value.
  2. Tell Stories, Think 30 for 30. 30 for 30 is an ESPN documentary film series that highlights interesting events, people, and stories from sports history. This series shows the tremendous effect that sports can have on people’s lives, whether they are athletes or not. When it comes to mobilizing people around strategy and change, real-life stories help us make sense of who we want to be more like, or how we wish our successes looked. The best way to get more people experimenting, innovating, and changing is to make clear what success looks like, and why it will make such a difference. Creating your own 30 for 30 stories can be a tremendous catalyst to do this.

What are some of your tried-and-true methods for engaging people in executing your strategy? What’s your favorite example of celebrating success?