Strategy Execution: Lessons from the Front Lines

Written by

Davin Wilfrid

Published on

October 4, 2019

Why Strategy Execution Is Harder Than Ever

The pressure to adapt is greater than ever. And yet companies struggle to innovate, grow, and improve efficiency because of organizational inertia, internal politics, and lack of actionable insights where it matters most — in the work that connects strategy to execution. 

The most successful organizations, today and tomorrow, will be those that can adapt quickly to changing conditions by implementing the cultures, processes, and technologies necessary for survival. To get there, they’ll need to think about work in unconventional ways — ones which often challenge the status quo and sacred cows of business.

Those were just some of the clear threads that emerged from day one of Catalant’s Velocity Summit. This annual event brings together forward-thinking leaders from various industries to share insights on how to get from strategy to execution faster.

Changing Markets And Workforces

What forces are driving companies to transform? According to Jenny Dearborn, formerly Chief Learning Officer at SAP and CEO of Actionable Insights Group, it’s a confluence of several vectors including big data, technology, a more socially connected world, changing demographics, complexity, and rapidly shifting markets. 

The pace of change is only accelerating, and businesses and societies both aren’t equipped to handle what’s next. 

Everything that can be automated will be automated, but jobs aren’t necessarily going away — just changing.

— Jenny Dearborn, former Chief Learning Officer, SAP and CEO, Actionable Analytics Group

This shift is already forcing companies to re-evaluate how they plan and assess for the workforce of tomorrow. The most important skills of tomorrow include critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication. Organizations, for their part, need to focus strategy on the customer — and the work required to deliver a superior customer experience — rather than marginal improvements in traditional business metrics.

Photo of Andrea Black speaking with Vijay Subramanian

How Smart Organizations Innovate

Innovation is among the most abused words in business, but when it comes to executing on top strategic priorities, a few business leaders show us what it means to find new value. 

At Bose, Fuat Koro is on a mission to drive meaningful innovation. The VP of Corporate Strategy and Innovation is focused on five dimensions of emergent strategy execution: strategy, governance, structure, process, and culture. New ideas are plotted along the horizon framework, where a strategy committee assesses their promise in the short, medium or long term. 

Meanwhile, at Anheuser-Busch InBev, a team led by Juan Carlos Fuenmayor looks for value in areas that were previously ignored. For example, Anheuser-Busch InBev produces about 1.4 million tons of spent grain as a result of its brewing process. Previously this grain was sold to farmers as cow feed, but a concerted effort by Fuenmayor’s Venture Strategy and Finance team found more profitable uses for the grain after processing it in various ways. The result was a 100-fold improvement in profitability over simply selling the grain as feed.

Winners Are Customer-Obsessed

Another trend that emerged was the need to focus on the customer. From US Bank to MassMutual to Highmark Health to Rent the Runway, forward-thinking business leaders recognize that organizing work around customer benefits is the way to compete against disruptive startups. 

In fact, says Dearborn, lack of customer centricity is to blame for more disruption than technology, including at organizations like Blockbuster — which leaned on late fees for revenues even as Netflix was changing the paradigm for movie rental and consumption. 

For Jessica DeVlieger, President at C Space, an agency focused on helping organizations get more customer-centric, that problem emerged at a retail client catering to rural Americans. As the retailer grew more successful, it started attracting executives who fundamentally did not understand their audience. Despite strong evidence that its customers were more willing to engage via digital than was assumed, the executives still did not accept the evidence. Only when DeVlieger’s team followed a shopper through a two-day routine did the executives realize how out of touch they were. 

In such situations, says Vijay Subramanian, founding team member and former Chief Analytics Officer at Rent the Runway, the availability of data failed for lack of accurate interpretation. 

One problem is humans have the remarkable ability to impose our beliefs on the data. Data should be its own thing, and the culture should be about being truly agnostic about the debate.”

— Vijay Subramanian, Chief Analytics Officer, Rent the Runway

At US Bank, SVP and Head of Transformation Strategy Michael Cappetta is leading a new agile initiative aimed at propagating agile methodologies across the bank’s multiple business units. The team has already effected dramatic improvements in the pace of change along several product lines, partly because they’re driven by customer centricity. The success of projects, and the program as a whole, is not based on revenue but on the measured improvement in customer experience. 

Driving Efficiency

Few corporate strategies fail to include some flavor of efficiency as a desired outcome. At Highmark Health, CHRO Larry Kleinman is taking the lead on a massive initiative to improve results and efficiency across a diaspora of “proudly decentralized” businesses, from software to hospitals. 

Kleinman started by launching an internal consulting group aimed at reducing consulting spend, later branding the initiative thinkUP and branching out into several areas of continuous improvement. Critically, the thinkUP leaders ensured that its initiatives would be focused on more than just cost reduction efforts — rather it would strive to find innovations and growth engines to improve output and capacity instead of only wielding hatchets. 

At MassMutual, Head of Workplace Solutions Teresa Hassara spent 6 months benchmarking everything about the organization’s performance, from the existing state to the ideal state, in order to effect a mindset shift toward greater efficiency and change.

Photo of man asking a question at a conference

The Future Of Work Is Even More Different Than You Thought

As the nature of work changes — from squeezing more productivity out of existing resources to finding new and innovative ways to deliver customer value — organizations should be prepared for the next phase of what that means. Any job that relies on repetition, routine, or rote work is at risk of automation, says Kristin Sharp, Partner at Entangled

This risk is more than just a PR nightmare for companies — it can fundamentally damage an organization’s ability to continue to deliver through change waves. She suggests companies prepare by creating an inventory of skills that map to jobs, categorizing those jobs by automation risk, assigning at-risk workers to other opportunities, designing transition pathways for others, and finding systems for amplifying resources. 

For talent acquisition leaders, the same forces driving customer centricity are also driving changes in talent strategy, says Kristi Robinson, Head of Talent Acquisition at Citizens Bank. Full-time employees expect more of their employers than ever, so talent acquisition and retention naturally becomes a greater challenge. Giving those employees meaningful work that connects to strategy is a far more effective strategy than free bagels or other popular perks. 

Of course, the rapid pace of change means organizations have to evolve new models of matching the right talent to the right work. For some, that means accessing external talent marketplaces. For others, it means seeking out tools and software solutions to support their efforts to drive meaningful change. 

At MassMutual, Hassara’s change initiative included over 300 projects, each of which needed to be staffed quickly. Without a central system for matching skills to strategic work, that work fell to those the team already knew — creating an unintended consequence.

Catalant’s Vision Of The Future

In recent years, Catalant has evolved from an expert marketplace to something much more customer-centric. When co-CEO Pat Petitti led an effort to learn how customers were using Catalant’s services, he was shocked to learn that 72% of customers used Catalant as an alternative to hiring, engaging company alumni, or finding the right person internally (as opposed to just a faster, cheaper consulting alternative). 

That insight led Catalant to rethink its offering, doubling down on developing Catalant into a holistic platform to help organizations break down strategic initiatives into workstreams, match the skills and talent needed to execute (internally or externally), and surface meaningful insights about business outcomes. 

In short, Catalant’s goal is to help organizations cure the fundamental issues that block companies from getting from strategy to execution. 

“Our customers were telling us we were giving them tissues, when what they needed was cold medicine,” he says.

About Catalant

Catalant started as an expert marketplace to help businesses find expert freelancers to augment skills they didn’t have in-house. Since then we’ve partnered with organizations like Unilever, Anheuser-Busch InBev, and Shell to provide a software platform for prioritizing and organizing important initiatives, quickly accessing the best people for the right work (regardless of their title, function, or even company), and making better business decisions.

Learn More

Find out how Catalant helps companies like Shell, Unilever, and Anheuser-Busch InBev drive better business outcomes.

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Davin Wilfrid

Davin is the Director of Content Marketing for Catalant. In his spare time, he builds terrible-sounding instruments.