When drafting the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Ben Franklin famously said, "Surely we must all hang together lest we all hang separately" (as traitor to the British Crown). When leaders bring new strategies to life, the biggest obstacle they face is aligning others along the desired path.  The gap between strategy and execution remains devilishly hard to bridge.

Research suggests that only 30% of organizations execute their strategies effectively, meaning that 70% of projects are NOT executed well. Why?

  • 95% of managers within an organization say they do not fully understand what the strategy is. 
  • 75% of managers do not have any stake in the success of the strategy.
  • 85% of leaders spend less than one hour a month talking about strategy.

The inability to align stakeholders around strategy implementation takes a heavy toll on leader effectiveness.  Efficiency, productivity, and spirit are drained when needed most.  The answer does not require divine powers, but rather a human touch that connects with people’s interests and their natural desires to work effectively in teams.

1. Communicate your intent early, often, and simply. According to Chip and Dan Heath, authors of the best-selling book Switch, “What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity.”

Leaders can get so invested in their strategic agenda, they fail to realize that what is clear to them is fuzzy to others. At Shell, we assumed that if it took the senior management team half a year to arrive at a shared strategic vision, then it might take the rest of the organization two years or so.

Without abundantly clear communication about where you are going and why, team members may default to behaviours that inadvertently undermine the strategic intent. In an uncertain world, transparency in not a luxury, but an indispensable necessity.

2. Reach out to those who have a stake in your direction. The head of a client’s R&D group shared a frustration we hear a lot: “The organization is stifling.  I have to talk with 6 different people from different departments with different bosses who have different priorities to get everyone on the same page to move forward.  It’s impossible to get things done to support the strategy.  The matrix is killing me.”

It was easier for leaders in “command and control organizations” to line up the troops and send them marching.  Organizations have moved from hierarchical structures with clear lines of authority to horizontal networks where decision-making is more diffuse. Horizontally networked organizations should especially try to include all those with a significant stake in the outcome. 

Such wider communication may slow things down at first, but you will easily make up that time by having better implementation and execution (as Japanese companies showed us). So, strategic leaders must learn how navigate the maze and come out the other side with strong alignment, but few have the patience or the skills to pull this off.

3. Promote open dialogue and true debate. One of the oldest axioms for change leaders is to approach resistance, not ignore it or fight it. Yet too often we fail to even surface, let alone fully understand, why people see things differently. This failure readily occurs when people have their heads down and are focused on immediate demands. 

And yes, it is messy and often awkward to surface and deal with conflicting views. Yet, we pay a heavy price when we don’t attend to differences up front. Strategic leaders must have the courage to face conflict, tease out diverse expectations, and manage differences to build win-win, sustainable solutions.   

4.  Reward those who truly take ownership. Strategic change can only be achieved when people own the solutions in their guts and not just their heads. What we interpret as “buy-in” is often superficial agreement. 

A client engaged us to help them translate their strategy into action. The first thing we did was a “lessons learned” debrief on why they failed to execute successfully before. It became apparent that many leaders did not share the same urgency or ownership of the prior initiatives, even those assigned to them.  This is all too common when leaders fail to clarify their change agenda, connect key stakeholders, and promote debate of the issues.  Make sure your colleagues have truly signed on to the same plan that you think all agreed to execute.

Rallying people around an execution strategy is hard work. Unless you rely on a proven approach to align stakeholders, you may have no more than an illusion of agreement and a failed project later. 

This article was co-authored with Steve Krupp and is fifth of in a series examining the key components of strategic aptitude: anticipating, thinking critically, interpreting, deciding, aligning, and learning. For an overview of all six skills see 6 Habits of Strategic Thinkers.