In 1995, Harvard professor John P. Kotter famously reported that 70% of change-management initiatives fail. Almost 20 years on, the record is still dismal. Strategy implementation continues to defeat leaders and their advisers. Estimates for failure rates vary — but they are usually between 40 and 90%.
So how can you reduce the risks that things will go horribly wrong when you try to put your plans into practice?
Kurt Verweire’s book, Strategy Implementation, is a very good place to start. Concerned almost exclusively with competitive strategy and written for the business-unit manager rather than the group or corporate strategist at HQ who wants to ‘globalize’ or diversify the company, it does not have all the answers, but it has enough of the answers to make a real difference.
One of the best things about the book — the product of around five years’ work — is its logical structure. Verweire, associate professor of strategic management at Vlerick Business School, covers the basics first, explaining, for example, the difference between strategy and ‘mission’, and identifying fatal flaws such as the failure to ‘translate’ the strategy across functional departments. Recognizing that problems often pre-date the implementation phase, he devotes a whole chapter to ‘formulating a winning strategy’, before moving on to five key sets of processes managers must master to make a winning strategy work.
His process-based framework is then ‘broken down’ into the core activities needed for specific strategies. Parts II to IV of the book are devoted to three distinct operating models, identified by authors Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersema in 1995 as common in top-performing companies: product leadership, operational excellence and customer-intimacy. Verweire explains each one in turn — and then explains how product-leading, ‘operationally excellent’, and ‘customer-intimate’ companies implement strategy.
The clear structure of the book is matched by the writing style. Strategy Implementation is informed by academic research and has a fairly broad academic frame of reference — ‘shout-outs’ include W. Edwards Deming and London Business School’s Julian Birkinshaw — but it is aimed very much at the general business reader. The prose is clear, confident and, at times, nicely epigrammatic. “Profit is a consequence, and as such it always shows up too late to make a difference,” Verweire reminds us, quoting customer-intimate company, Chateauform’, a seminar organizer and hotelier. “An innovation strategy must grow out of a broadly engaging, deeply creative process of strategic enquiry (not from a two-day strategy retreat attended by a few superannuated divisional directors),” he tells us in one of the chapters on product leadership.
The tone is, arguably, a bit excitable at times. Sentences such as “Strategic goals are derived from the company’s vision, but they are not a substitute for a vision!” would work better without a ‘screamer’. But this is a minor criticism. Packed with checklists and real-life examples, including lesser-known companies as well as the usual roll call of Apple, Google, Disney, Toyota, Zara, etc, Strategy Implementation does exactly what it says on the tin. By the end of the book, the reader has a pretty good idea of how strategy is implemented at market-leading companies — and a set of tools they can use in their own business.
Strategy Implementation, Kurt Verweire, Routledge, 2014, ISBN: 978-0-415-73199-7