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Three tips to make and maintain a successful strategy

Good strategy is hard to come by and even harder to keep going. We spoke to strategy expert Tim Sullivan about how to make sure your strategy remains a driving force.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

In 1982, Walter Kiechel III declared that 90 percent “of organisations fail to execute on strategy effectively.” His declaration has been controversial ever since, with some saying the numbers aren’t so bad and others saying they’re even worse. What isn’t contested, though, is that a good strategy is hard to come by and even harder to keep going. With the growth of the impact economy, a key point-of-difference for true impact economy organisations is that shared value is fully mainlined into the DNA of the business model. Whether public or private, organisations that build their strategy execution capabilities will be better positioned to take advantage of the impact economy.

“The natural human tendency is to let strategy slide in priority over time,” says Tim Sullivan, CEO of Wright-Hennepin Cooperative Electric Association. “It’s critical to have a refresher course.” After working in strategic planning for over two decades, Sullivan has refined the strategic process and magnified its power when implemented correctly. Between serving as a director of public relations, designing political strategic plans, and serving as a COO, he has overseen strategy from a variety of perspectives.

We sat down with Sullivan to get his expert tips. To make and maintain a successful strategy, Sullivan recommends using a blueprint to design your strategy, finding someone with authority to own your strategy, and being able to describe your strategy in detail.

Use a blueprint
An important but time-consuming part of a designing a solid strategy is customisation. Sullivan describes this as one of the biggest obstacles he faced during his journey of strategy execution. “I needed to get the strategy down to the right size, but still have it be effective,” he says. When he and his team started their strategy journey, they were working with a process that had about 70 steps. They found they really didn’t need that many and were able to refine their process down to about 20 steps. Prioritising and scaling down the strategy to the most efficient, effective size was crucial.

In order to design a blueprint that would be right for the organisation, Sullivan met with the strategy designers on a number of occasions to develop a detailed guide about how steps would be implemented. Once it was put into a distributable format, Sullivan delivered the step-by-step guide to the entire organisation over the course of four years in a series of “Master Classes.”

To boil it down, viewing a strategy as a blueprint that needs to be as specific but simple as possible will help eliminate unnecessary steps. It’s more likely to be put into practice long-term and streamlined across the entire team. Collaborating with the team in order to identify and reevaluate what needs to happen, and when, will save everyone time and headaches down the road.

It’s best that this blueprint stems from a core message or strategy. For Palladium, that core message is Positive Impact. The company defines this idea as “the intentional creation of enduring social and economic value.” No matter what component of the strategy Palladium is working on, which influencers it’s collaborating with, or how each team is managed, this core message and purpose guides each decision and interaction.

Own it
“If you don’t have a robust internal strategy management office, you don’t have a strategy,” says Sullivan. He explains that strategy execution is a consistent effort – elbow grease, essentially – focused on a specific set of objectives. While CEO’s are responsible for strategy, they’re pulled in so many directions that it’s much more effective to have a dedicated team overseeing the process.

“Somebody has to own it, and somebody with authority has to own it,” says Sullivan. In his experience, about three out of four strategies were executed as a result of the (very senior) operational level team having the authority to execute. When this much attention is given to strategy, seeing it through to the end is more realistic and manageable.

Keeping the momentum up once everyone’s on board, however, is another animal. Sullivan stresses the importance of not just introducing the idea, but being able to keep the strategy vital and moving, years down the line. This was one of the reasons the organisation connected with Palladium: “Palladium has regular web conferences for strategy execution and follow-up refresher courses.”

Describe it
Sullivan’s favorite line from the Master Class? “You can’t execute a strategy you can’t describe.” From the meeting room, to the cubicle, to team meetings, your strategy document should be visible and understood.

Sullivan partially attributes their success to the fact that its strategy is quantifiable: they want everything to be time-bound, achievable, and measurable. In addition, he recommends strategy planners consider the current state of the company or initiative and how the future state should differ. Combining these two mindsets allows companies to think in terms of resources (funding and personnel changes for example) that will take them from A to B. Determining these goals and attributes will help everyone on the team describe the strategy and what it will take to make it successful. As Media Specialist Shellie Karabel says, “Your culture has to support your strategy.”

While no two strategies are the same, there are a few key ways to execute a strategy that works and keeps working. Executing strategy effectively means every actor in the impact economy stands to achieve measurably higher results while improving their ability to execute real and lasting change. With Sullivan’s insight, you’re sure to develop strategies that make an impact.

For more information on emerging market strategies or Palladium’s Positive Impact work, contact our team today via