The true cause of the Strategy-Execution Gap

When the strategy doesn’t deliver on anticipated expectations, the strategy-execution gap is the scapegoat. In fact, thousands of articles have been written on this phenomenon. For example, here’s one of the top results from a quick Google search:

“What causes execution gaps? There are numerous potential causes of execution gaps, such as goals and timelines that are too ambitious, little to no clarity about the vision or goals, and even a lack of buy-in from key players. One of the biggest causes relates to your resources.”

However, this actually isn’t the problem. Yes, these components can influence the success or failure of a strategy, but they’re not the cause of the strategy execution gap.

Fundamentally, a strategy-execution gap exists because a bridge between strategy and execution is not created. Without a bridge, a high-level corporate strategy has virtually an infinite number of ways to be translated into execution. This often results in reframing existing initiatives so they present like they’re aligned with the strategy, or simply a series of random tactics which can be loosely tied to the strategy. And in this lies the problem – without a translation, any and all things can become “part of the strategy”, which ends up making the strategy itself less strategic.

Let’s take a hypothetical example. Say a company develops its corporate strategy, and within that strategy, there’s an objective of attaining growth in a new market. Let’s also assume that the corporate team did their due diligence to identify that this market is really an opportunity, in that it’s growing and the organization has the capabilities and resources to serve it. So now this strategic objective is shared with key departments – in this example, let’s limit it to sales, marketing, and product development. Each of these departments then proceeds to develop its individual plans to achieve this objective. But here’s the rub – there are a thousand ways to skin a cat.

So let’s say the sales team focuses on adding more field reps in the market. Marketing focuses on developing marketing materials and promotions to reach the market. Product development focuses on creating a couple of new products for the market. This all seems to make complete and logical sense – the plans align with the strategy. And the teams, who are excellent at execution, get right to work. However, no real traction really occurs – only a marginal amount of revenue is generated here and there. Obviously a strategy-execution gap.

Yet, the problem isn’t the strategy or the department plans, communication, resources, or overly ambitious goals. It is the lack of a Supporting Strategy. A Supporting Strategy takes lofty objectives and translates them into clear, actionable, and aligned approaches to execution. Different from an operational or implementation plan, a Supporting Strategy is a strategy of its own – a unique and distinct way to achieve the objectives provided in the Corporate Strategy. Basically, instead of plugging in your old playbook to fit the new Corporate Strategy, you create your own unique strategy to support it.

In our example, if each of the three departments – instead of jumping to creating execution plans – began with creating their own Supporting Strategies, Sales might focus on approaching market penetration in a new and different way to better connect with the target audience. Marketing might focus on designing a unique, non-traditional program that stands out in a homogenous market. Product development might focus on not creating a new product, but designing an experience. The point isn’t to execute the obvious and traditional stuff – it’s to design a strategic approach to achieve those bold and ambitious corporate objectives.

The point here is that each department needs its own strategy, tied to the overarching Corporate Strategy, which then will focus and drive execution. In addition, Supporting Strategies ensure strategic thinking is embedded across the organization, rather than simply hitting the “easy” button and rehashing the same tired tactics. The bottom line, once you have a Corporate Strategy, it’s time to create your Supporting Strategies to truly bridge the execution gap.

Andrea Olson
Andrea Olsen

About the Author:

Andrea Belk Olson is a keynote speaker, author, differentiation strategist, behavioral scientist, and customer-centricity expert. As the CEO of Pragmadik, she helps organizations of all sizes, from small businesses to Fortune 500, and has served as an outside consultant for EY and McKinsey. Andrea is the author of three books, including her most recent, What To Ask: How To Learn What Customers Need but Don’t Tell You, released in June 2022.

She is a 4-time ADDY® award winner and host of the popular Customer Mission podcast. Her thoughts have been continually featured in news sources such as Chief Executive Magazine, Entrepreneur Magazine, Harvard Business Review, Rotman Magazine, World Economic Forum, and more. Andrea is a sought-after speaker at conferences and corporate events throughout the world. She is a visiting lecturer and startup coach at the University of Iowa, a TEDx presenter, and TEDx speaker coach. She is also an instructor at the University of Iowa Venture School.

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