Closing the Gap Between Sustainability Strategy and Execution

The implication is obvious — strategists and executors must work together better to bridge these two worlds. It's common sense. Unfortunately, it's far from common practice. What typically happens is an awkward hand-off between the two. In the worst cases the strategists adopt an elitist, disconnected mindset: We're the idea people, someone else will make it happen. They don't bother to truly understand what it takes to implement the ideas. They don't engage the executors early and ask, "How will this actually work?" The executors contribute to the trouble as well. Often they don't truly understand the thinking behind the strategy. They take it at face value and don't ask enough tough questions.

-- Doug Sundheim, Harvard Business Review


We've been reading a long list of awesome leadership articles lately--and this one, Closing the Chasm Between Strategy and Execution  is one that we keep coming back to. Why? Because one of the biggest challenges in sustainability consulting is helping client jump from developing a sustainability strategy to actually implementing the plan.

We highly recommend that you read the whole article (and the comments--many of which highlight additional angles to the problem), but we'd like to solely focus on the qualities of great strategists and executors. (And in many cases, the same person is playing both sides of the field, so he or she needs to think about the full list!)

The Best Sustainability Strategists Believe:

  • If I can't see and articulate how we're actually going to make this strategy work, it probably won't work. 
  • While it's painful to integrate execution planning into my strategizing, it's even more painful to watch my strategies fail. 
  • Sounding smart is overrated. Doing smart is where the real value lies. 
  • I'm just as responsible for strong execution as the executor is. 

The Best Sustainability Executors Believe: 

  • I need to be involved in the strategy process early -- even if that means I have to artfully push my way into it.
  • I need to be perceived as relevant and valuable to the strategy process. 
  • I need to know the "whys" behind the strategy. 
  • I'm just as responsible for strong strategy as the strategist is. 

If you're stuck somewhere between sustainability strategy and implementation, consider which of these beliefs aren't rock solid within your team. And start shoring them up--because otherwise, everyone will become dissatisfied. 

A final parting thought from Sundheim: You can see a clear thread of responsibility running throughout all the beliefs above. Not responsibility for a given task, but rather responsibility for the not-given tasks — the messy spots in the middle where it's not clear who should own something. The best strategists, executors, and leaders stand up and say, "I'm responsible for it" even if it isn't in their job description. It's doubly powerful when both strategists and executors do this, meeting in the middle. That's true collaborative leadership. When these spots go unwatched, un-owned, and unaddressed, they bring down projects and eventually whole companies. 

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