The Responsibilities of Management Series, #8: Clarify Your Strategy, Plan Your Actions, and Execute

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 18, Issue No. 2b
June 15, 2019

By Dan Coughlin


Keep in mind these two overarching thoughts on strategy:

  1. No strategy is guaranteed to deliver your desired results.
    Please, please, please don’t think you’re trying to create a silver bullet strategy. It doesn’t exist. Do your best, give your strategy a reasonable amount of time, if it works keep using it, and if it doesn’t reconsider it.
  2. When it comes to strategy, simplicity is much more effective than complexity.

 You can build a 30-page strategy or you can build a ¾ page strategy.

They might be equally good as strategies, but the more complicated one is going to make the implementation much, much more difficult to accomplish.

Now let’s get on with this explanation of strategy, planning, and execution.

A strategy:

  • Defines the business you are in.
  • Clarifies the 3 key outcomes you want to improve for your customers and the 3 key outcomes you want to improve for your organization.
  • Describes what your organization will do to achieve your desired outcomes.

A plan describes tactically how these things are going to happen in terms of who will do what when. There are deadlines, budget parameters, and designated individuals and groups to accomplish the items listed.

Execution means to actually accomplish what you have set out to do within the time frames and financial parameters you have put in place. Execution in the real-world never goes exactly as it is written on paper, but it’s still important to write out your strategy and your plan, and keep them in mind as you move forward.

When you evaluate progress every three months, you can look at all three factors: the strategy, the action plan, and the tactical execution to determine what has been effective and what has not been effective.

Please consider answering these questions to clarify your strategy, establish your plan of action, and review the quality of your execution.

Strategy Questions to Consider

The questions regarding your strategy are:

  1. How would you fill in the blanks in either of these statements:
    We are in the business of ___ , OR we are in the ___ business.
  2. What 3 outcomes are we trying to primarily improve for our customers that fit within the definition of our business, and why did we select these outcomes?
  3. What 3 outcomes are we trying to improve in our organization, and why did we select these outcomes?
  4. What are the 2-3 things we will do to improve each of those outcomes, and why did we select these items?

You might be thinking, “Dan, that’s it. Four questions. That’s all you got for me? This is way too simple. You need to add a lot more complexity for this to be useful. There are whole books just on developing a strategy.”

If you are thinking that, here’s my response, “The questions are easy to read, but hard to answer.” It takes a lot of time and many attempts to really land on clear, concise, relevant, and effective answers to these questions.

My favorite go-to story on strategy is the story of Walt Disney. He started his own business in 1920, and it was not until 1950 that a clear and effective strategy was established that has lasted until today. Between 1920 and 1950 he had a commercial artists business, he made Laugh-O-grams, he developed animated characters like Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and Mickey Mouse, he made full-length animated feature films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and he made animated training films for the military during World War II. What he didn’t have was a clear defining statement about what business he was in.

In the early 1950s he said that The Walt Disney Company was in the business of entertaining all the members of the family. Bingo! Now all of the pieces of his business that he had in place or was bringing to fruition (tv shows, animated films, live action films, theme parks, characters, etc.) all fit together and reinforced each other. That defining statement is still alive and well as Disney has several of the top revenue-producing films of the past year, strong attendance at their theme parks, and success on television with ABC and ESPN and its own Disney Channel.

Once you’ve landed on your answers to those four questions above you have established the direction you want your business and your efforts to move in. Keeping this tight and focused is very, very important. Whether you are a $100,000 business or a $1,000,000,000 business, the key is to have a clear and focused strategy.

However, to get to that level of clarity it may very well take many drafts in answering these four questions. I encourage you to write out your answers over and over again until you have honed your answers to something so clear and concise that you can explain it to another person without looking at your sheet of paper. I’m not a fan of a two-day strategy retreat to get all this done. I suggest an effective strategy might take several months and many iterations to be finalized effectively

When people throughout your organization can state the answers to those four questions, you know you have a very clear and understandable strategy.

Planning Questions to Consider

 To determine how each answer to question number four above will be accomplished, answer these questions: 

  1. What is the financial budget for each item you wrote down?
  2. What steps need to be completed and who is responsible for getting them done?
  3. What is the timeline by which time each step needs to be completed?

In answering these questions you will end up with a detailed, comprehensive tactical plan of action. Now you are ready as an organization to move into action. This does not mean you have to micromanage people every step of the way. People know who is responsible for the various items. Now get out of the way, and let them go.

Implementation Questions to Consider

Here are the questions regarding your execution:

 Every 60 days I encourage you to review these questions:

  1. What did we say we would accomplish by this date, and what did we actually accomplish?
  2. What went well and why did it go well, and what did not go well and why did it not go well?
  3. What lessons have we learned or relearned in the past 60 days?
  4. What will we do the same and what will we do differently in the next 60 days?

You have established a strategy and a tactical plan. You have begun to execute the plan. These execution reviews are very important to make sure that people throughout your organization have stayed focused within the parameters of the strategy and the tactical plan, and that adjustments are being made when necessary along the way.

Perhaps the strategy needs to be reconsidered, the tactical plan needs refining, or the execution needs improving. Check in every 60 days and analyze what is happening. Be careful not to jerk your organization all over the place. More than likely it is subtle improvements, not wholesale changes, that need to be made. 

Republishing Articles

My newsletters, Thoughts on Excellence, have been republished in approximately 40 trade magazines, on-line publications, and internal publications for businesses, universities, and not-for-profit organizations over the past 20+ years. If you would like to republish all or part of my monthly articles, please send me an e-mail at with the name of the article you want in the subject heading. I will send you the article in a word document.

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