Every brain in the game: why strategy execution is crucial to Irish business
Strategist and author Dr Trish Gorman on why Irish business needs to prepare for constant evolution of their business strategy
Dr Trish Gorman, managing director of the Goff Strategic Leadership Centre: “We need everyone in an organisation thinking strategically, and doing so earlier in their career.”
Irish business leaders are facing into unchartered waters. Brexit, tariffs and trade wars are just some of the external issues impacting strategic decision making right now.
On top of these is the internal decision making required to keep their organisations running at optimal levels. And it’s all happening in a world where the pace of change is accelerating.
But formulating good strategy only takes you so far. To successfully navigate in a sea of uncertainty, effective implementation is required. That takes real leadership.
Leading Strategy Execution is one of three new programmes in the Irish Management Institute’s Executive Series. Launching this autumn, each is designed to equip leaders to be future-fit and is led by internationally renowned thought leaders such as Dr Trish Gorman, managing director of the Goff Strategic Leadership Centre.
In advance of her arrival at the IMI, we caught up with Trish at her base in Salt Lake City to get an insight into how Irish business leaders can become better at leading strategy execution, and prepare for what lies ahead.
What is the role of strategy in business?
It’s helping you make good choices, and not just at the top. Every person in your organisation from the most junior to the CEO can make decisions better. It’s about helping you see what you want to achieve, what you need to do next, and what to do now.
Why does good strategy fail in execution?
Lots of reasons. Among the most common is because everyone doesn’t get behind it. It’s like anything, if you’re planning a vacation with friends and not everyone saves their money to go, it’s not happening.
In business the fact that we are all so busy, that we all have too much to do putting out fires, doesn’t help, but another common reason is that something in the environment changes. For Irish businesses, at the moment, that something could be Brexit, trade wars, tariffs or technological change.
Strategy execution can also fail simply because you didn’t get everybody involved, you left out some key pieces and so you haven’t the team in place. With strategy execution, you need every brain in the game.
If it fails, is strategy to blame or execution?
In my experience it’s 50/50. But if you look at strategy as something you finish formulating and then do, that’s part of the problem. You don’t wait until your strategy is 100 per cent and then execute, it doesn’t work like that. It’s a direction you are headed in so you should be continuously working on it.
Strategy and execution should be done concurrently. You build it while you are using it, making adjustments as you go, frequently testing your strategy to see that it fits with the circumstances. Be open to learning, don’t consider it done and dusted, and be open to change.
Why is strategy execution so important for Irish CEOs right now?
Both your customers and your competitors are sophisticated too and, increasingly, global. Things are changing rapidly. Everything is more complex. There are no simple products anymore. Even the simple water bottle you drink from has technology in its materials and its mechanisms.
Businesses are therefore in a constant storm and need all hands on deck. We need everyone in an organisation thinking strategically, and doing so earlier in their career. It’s important because with strategy, the more you do of it the better you get.
What does better look like?
We see people breaking down the problems in front of them differently, seeing different options, bringing different people into the decision making.
The key is to be looking for problems to solve, for obstacles to clear away. It’s about asking yourself the question ‘what is the biggest obstacle to my success?’. That’s a very different question to saying ‘how do I succeed?’.
It’s like when little kids first take up soccer and immediately start running for the goal. They have to learn that to get there they’ve first got to look at the other players, so they can get out of their way.
How do you manage fear of change?
By ensuring everybody wins. If you don’t ensure that, people will go against it. Managing change is a learned skill and it’s all in the stories you tell yourself. If change bothers you, think of it as growth or experimentation, something that doesn’t result in fear or anger. If we let ourselves be afraid of change, we limit our growth.
What’s the best way to communicate it?
Be candid. Explain that yes, it’s going to be scary but it will be worth it, just like the idea of training for a marathon would be. It’s about communicating that everybody wins but that they have to put in the work to get there.
Communication is key. It can’t just be you as a leader telling people. Strategic dialogue is a two-way street. You listen, you ask questions, you clarify.
Can’t you just hand it down like an edict?
The old way of communicating strategy was instructing people to ‘hop to it’. That doesn’t work anymore. It’s a story. It’s about understanding what your role in this story is, communicating the “why?”, the “when?”, and the “what happens if things go wrong?”. It’s outlining the contingencies, the Plan A and the Plan B.
Then it’s repetition, repetition, repetition. Nobody understands a strategy the first time they hear it. In fact, it almost always sounds counter intuitive.
Say you make children’s bikes and your strategy is to start making mountain bikes. It will sound ridiculous, “Why would we do that?” But when you walk people through it, demonstrate that there is a greater market for it, more profits from it, it makes sense.
Leading strategy execution means you have to be a kind of time traveller, closing your eyes and thinking about 2028 and wondering what kind of bikes people will be riding then.
How do Irish companies rate on strategy?
Any Irish company you can think of that used to be around but isn’t anymore is one that was not able to adapt to changing times. They weren’t able to think up a feasible strategy.
But there are many great Irish examples of good leadership in strategy execution too. Kerry Group is one. It has been through so much change and done a tremendous job of innovating while at the same time keeping its core values.
What should Irish business leaders be doing in advance of Brexit?
Now would be a time to invest in your strategy. If you have been through tough times before, you will already have some resilience but it’s not too late. Remember, everybody in your market is facing the same problems as you. It means that, in a way, while the prospect of Brexit is so terrifying, in fact it is of less concern than if, say, everyone else in your market is booming but your technology is at fault.
With Brexit, everybody is in the same boat. The key is to lean into the uncertainty and look for the opportunity while everybody else is panicking.
Leading Strategy Execution is one of three new programmes in the Irish Management Institute’s Executive Series. Launching this autumn, each is designed to equip leaders to be future-fit and is led by internationally renowned thought leaders such as Dr Trish Gorman, managing director of the Goff Strategic Leadership Centre. For more, see imi.ie.