A little-known secret to successful strategy implementation

Posted by on Feb 13, 2012

Set strategic priorities for fast implementation

We all know that success requires a sound strategy that fits your know-how and resources.

However, there’s an often overlooked but critical factor required for successful implementation – strategic prioritization.

Strategy has always been about getting the biggest bang for the buck.  But this is different.  This is about focusing on a few of your initiatives for immediate implementation, while others await their turn.

The concept is very simple, yet few senior teams do it.  Most find it difficult to narrow their priorities further than dozen or so top priorities.  But a dozen is far too many.  We believe committing to too many priorities is the single biggest cause of disappointing implementation.

The need is almost universal

We’re not the only ones who have noticed this.

A 2011 survey by Booz-Allen found:

“Two out of three respondents admit that their company’s capabilities don’t fully support their strategy.

The majority (64%) agree that their company has too many conflicting priorities.”

A November 2011 report in the McKinsey Global Survey said:

“Just half of executives say their time spent at work aligns with their organizations’ strategic priorities”.

And an April 2011 HBR article by Paul Leinwand And Cesare Mainardi concluded:

“The message is clear – over-reaching is harmful to your bottom line.”

What is meant by “strategic prioritization”?

It’s easier to start by defining what it isn’t.

All our clients have strategic goals or objectives, and it’s pretty obvious which ones have the highest priority. Growth, profit, and customer satisfaction usually get top billing, and for obvious reasons. They are outcomes of virtually everything else the organization does.

But setting strategic priorities isn’t about prioritizing your objectives.  It’s about deciding which of your strategic initiatives are your top implementation priorities.  And it’s critical.


All but the smallest organizations have a large number of initiatives and activities underway at any given time.  All are important in their own way.  But they are not all equal in return on effort.

Moreover, you lack the resources to pursue all of them.  Your key people are probably already fully occupied with important work.  There’s scarce little “slack” in anyone’s day to take on new initiatives.

When you have more priorities than resources, it is critical that you make sound decisions about which priorities to resource now, and which ones will have to wait.

In our experience, most leadership teams struggle to reduce their priorities to a short list to which they can allocate enough leadership and resources to achieve rapid implementation.  Yet that is exactly what they should do!  Trying to implement too many initiatives at once spreads your scarce resources. The progress on each initiative will be slower. You’ll increase costs and delay your returns if you don’t prioritize.

Selecting and resourcing those few top priorities is essential if you want ahead-of-the-pack results.  We’ve seen clients’ success increase when they prioritize this way.  That doesn’t mean that the other initiatives aren’t important. It simply means you’ll focus your strategic change and improvement energies on these few, and leave the others aside until the top priorities are up and running.  Only then will you turn to the next tier of priorities.

Why is prioritization so hard?

We think there’s an important reason that executives find this so difficult.  Few people in any organization really know how everything in the organization works.  But if you want to select the right strategic priorities, you must have an intimate understanding of how each part of the organization contributes to its overall success.

Yet even that is not enough.  To select the right priorities, you must also know where the greatest improvement potential lies.  Selecting priorities requires understanding where the marginal investment of extra effort will yield disproportionate results.  If you already knew how to do this, you probably would have done it.  In most cases, it isn’t done because no-one knows what the priorities should be.

The prioritization step usually comes near the conclusion of several days of planning.  Participants are tired, they’re still absorbing many new ideas, and they’re running short of time.  It’s not surprising that prioritization gets short shrift.  But it’s a critical part of implementation, and no team should consider their planning complete until they’ve applied themselves diligently to prioritization.

Of course, after an executive team has selected strategic priorities, they must act on them.  This presents two related challenges: how many priorities are too many; and how to align the entire organization around those you select.

We’ll say more about that topic in next week’s article.

© 2012 Knowlan Consulting Group Inc. All rights reserved. Unauthorized duplication or publication in any form, in whole or in part, is prohibited.



  1. Great points, Rick. Whether the prioritization is a dose of “management by fact” – showing far back from your metrics’ targets you are – or “gut feel” by the team involved, or some kind of voting (ouch), prioritization needs to be done to avoid the proverbial death-by-a-thousand-cuts.

    Having someone present who has a good handle on the current capacity (supply and demand of resources, often in the bottle-neck area of IT), helps highlight the need for prioritization since it can’t be just sluffed off for someone else to tackle once the strategic planning session is over… You can’t click your heels three times to make them appear.

    Of course, some kind of balanced scorecard that’s imbedded into continuous monthly management at least allows for earlier course correction if necessary: fail faster, succeed sooner!

  2. Thanks, Darren, and you raise a critical point that I’ll cover in my next article – how to go about prioritizing.

    I loved your comment . . . “voting (ouch)”. When it’s the only way, it may be better than nothing. But many teams really have no other way to make that decision. It’s not just how far short of the metrics you are – it all comes down to “bang for the buck” – which initiatives are likely to yield the greatest return on marginal effort. I think there are ways to add value to a voting decision, and I’ll cover at least one of them next week.