​How to execute on strategy: Getting great ideas from the whiteboard to the boardroom

Good ideas aren't enough on their own. Here's how top business leader get things done.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

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The gap between strategy and execution remains a persistent problem. Harvard Business Review reports two-thirds of executives say their organisations do not have the capabilities to support their strategy. So, what can CIOs do to fill the gap? Four IT leaders talk about how they take great ideas from the whiteboard to the boardroom and out into the wider organisation.

1. Create an integrated approach to change that draws people together

Business leadership experts continue to debate the subtle difference between strategy and execution. Yet Julian Burnett, CIO at retailer House of Fraser, says these two elements are in effect two sides of the same coin. "There's no such thing in my mind as a strategy, that stands in isolation, if it's not executed," he says.

Burnett says communication is an essential ingredient to helping everyone across the organisation understand the role they play in change and the teams they operate. He says CIOs must develop a collaborative approach to transformation that accommodates all elements and involves all people.

"Strategy is only achieved through execution," he says. "You can put together as many PowerPoint decks of your strategy as you want but you'll get nowhere unless your people are engaged. No matter how big or small the improvement that the business is seeking, you need to get a blend where you give people the permission to get involved and to access the tools to enact change."

Burnett says his IT department is responsible for running a broad range of initiatives, from multi-million change programmes to twice-monthly releases of small updates to the retailer's web platform. He says successfully delivery necessitates an integrated approach to the various types of change programme.

"It's essential you bring everything together," says Burnett. "I'm lucky to have come up through the enterprise architecture side of the IT profession and, as result, I've built an approach that places an emphasis on architecture as a cohesive and coordinating force for change."

2. Be open to refining your direction of travel

Aaron Powell, chief digital officer at NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT), has spent the past two years developing a digital transformation strategy to help his organisation improve the efficiency of the organ allocation and blood transfer process in the UK. Powell reports to the chief executive at NHSBT, with a seat on the executive board.

"Strategy is about having a clear vision -- it's about knowing where you're going," says Powell, talking about how he has sold his vision for change to the rest of the business. Since becoming CDO in July 2015, Powell has used a combination of the cloud, analytics, and automation to change processes at NHSBT for the better.

He says successful progress along this transformation journey has helped prove the benefits of a clear objective. But he also believes more executives need to understand that great execution requires a strategy with in-built flexibility.

"You need to start small, build up pace and accelerate as you move forwards," says Powell. "You need to demonstrate from the steps that you take that the direction of travel is right and you need to recognise that you might need to refine that direction of travel, if you need to, as you move along."

3. Take responsibility for executing to the demands of the business

Akash Khurana, CIO and CDO at engineering specialist McDermott International, says strategy is a crucial component of IT leadership. He says CIOs must develop a pragmatic strategy that is tested and built in a collaborative manner. Only then, once key steps are articulated and understood, can IT leaders shift their focus to execution.

"As I look at the journey we've been through, our strategy never stops -- you must make sure you create a dynamic approach, which is pragmatic and vetted," says Khurana, who is using the cloud to drive agility and who is working with technology supplier Alfresco to deliver open and connected systems.

Khurana says 2017 has been the year of execution for his firm's IT team and their concentration has been fixed on delivery. His technology organisation has made sure the strategy they have developed has been executed successfully, with a series of associated methodologies to help govern the delivery process.

"The result is that we deliver to the expectations of the business," says Khurana. "Without that focus, you execute nothing. It's engrained in our team that we believe we have a strong strategy and the responsibility for us now, as a team, is to see that through."

4. Develop a strong sense of engagement across the organisation

As director of informatics at St Helens & Knowsley Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, Christine Walters reports to the chief executive and manages the IT budget for a series of healthcare bodies. With such a broad remit, and the cash constraints associated with working in the public sector, Walters says her strategic vision must be realistic.

"Get the board online and make sure they understand what technology can do for the organisation," she says. "Then engage the board and make sure they have the confidence in you to deliver on your strategy. Once you start delivering, it's certainly easier to get further senior backing."

Sector and organisational context can make a big difference. In the case of the NHS, Walters says clinical input is critical. She says healthcare CIOs must engage with experts and their views must reach the boardroom. "Clinical input is crucial to helping healthcare CIOs ensure ongoing delivery targets are met through IT investment," she says.

Walters has a chief clinical information officer as part of her leadership team. "He understands what the clinicians do and what will work in terms of technology," she says. "He's absolutely crucial to helping us to deliver our strategy and getting the support of people around the Trust."

Such constant engagement, says Walters, is key to successful execution. "You've got to make sure your strategy is in line with business requirements. You can't assume a strategy from 18 months ago still makes sense today. You've got to take a step back, stop and review at various stages, and make sure that what you're doing makes sense," she says.

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