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Turning Great Strategy Into Great Performance

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Three years ago, the leadership team at a major manufacturer spent months developing a new strategy for its European business. Over the prior half-decade, six new competitors had entered the market, each deploying the latest in low-cost manufacturing technology and slashing prices to gain market share. The performance of the European unit—once the crown jewel of the company’s portfolio—had deteriorated to the point that top management was seriously considering divesting it. To turn around the operation, the unit’s leadership team had recommended a bold new “solutions strategy”—one that would leverage the business’s installed base to fuel growth in after-market services and equipment financing. The financial forecasts were exciting—the strategy promised to restore the business’s industry-leading returns and growth. Impressed, top management quickly approved the plan, agreeing to provide the unit with all the resources it needed to make the turnaround a reality. Today, however, the unit’s performance is nowhere near what its management team had projected. Returns, while better than before, remain well below the company’s cost of capital.

The revenues and profits that managers had expected from services and financing have not materialized, and the business’s cost position still lags behind that of its major competitors. At the conclusion of a recent half-day review of the business’s strategy and performance, the unit’s general manager remained steadfast and vowed to press on. “It’s all about execution,” she declared. “The strategy we’re pursuing is the right one. We’re just not delivering the numbers. All we need to do is work harder, work smarter.” The parent company’s CEO was not so sure. He wondered: Could the unit’s lackluster performance have more to do with a mistaken strategy than poor execution? More important, what should he do to get better performance out of the unit? Should he do as the general manager insisted and stay the course—focusing the organization more intensely on execution—or should he encourage the leadership team to investigate new strategy options? If execution was the issue, what should he do to help the business improve its game?

Or should he just cut his losses and sell the business? He left the operating review frustrated and confused—not at all confident that the business would ever deliver the performance its managers had forecast in its strategic plan. Talk to almost any CEO, and you’re likely to hear similar frustrations. For despite the enormous time and energy that goes into strategy development at most companies, many have little to show for the effort. Our research suggests that companies on average deliver only 63% of the financial performance their strategies promise. Even worse, the causes of this strategy-to-performance gap are all but invisible to top management. Leaders then pull the wrong levers in their attempts to turn around performance—pressing for better execution when they actually need a better strategy, or opting to change direction when they really should focus the organization on execution. The result: wasted energy, lost time, and continued underperformance. Where the Performance Goes

But, as our research also shows, a select group of high-performing companies have managed to close the strategy-to-performance gap through better planning and execution. These companies—Barclays, Cisco Systems, Dow Chemical, 3M, and Roche, to name a few—develop realistic plans that are solidly grounded in the underlying economics of their markets and then use the plans to drive execution. Their disciplined planning and execution processes make it far less likely that they will face a shortfall in actual performance. And, if they do fall short, their processes enable them to discern the cause quickly and take corrective action. While these companies’ practices are broad in scope—ranging from unique forms of planning to integrated processes for deploying and tracking resources—our experience suggests that they can be applied by any business to help craft great plans and turn them into great performance. The Strategy-to-Performance Gap

In the fall of 2004, our firm, Marakon Associates, in collaboration with the Economist Intelligence Unit, surveyed senior executives from 197 companies worldwide with sales exceeding $500 million. We wanted to see how successful companies are at translating their strategies into performance. Specifically, how effective are they at meeting the financial projections set forth in their strategic plans? And when they fall short, what are the most common causes, and what actions are most effective in closing the strategy-to-performance gap? Our findings were revealing—and troubling.

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