What are strategic initiatives?
Strategic initiatives are action-oriented and measurable goals that translate your organization’s focus areas into specific outcomes. They’re concise with clear deadlines and owner(s).
Suppose your strategic focus areas are the big categories of effort, the high-level outcomes you aspire to achieve. In that case, the strategic initiatives are the next goals you need to hit to progress toward your focus areas.
Strategic initiatives are the specific actions or goals an organization adopts to bring its vision to life. They are the first tangible objectives of your strategy and are crucial to the execution of the strategy and the organization’s development.
The success of a given strategic initiative doesn’t depend on one single project. Instead, it’s the result of a sequence of successful and aligned projects.
In this article, we’ll discuss the following topics:
- The 3 most common reasons on why strategic initiatives fail
- How to write winning strategic initiatives: the SMART model and two qualities that make all the difference
- Examples of winning strategic initiatives from 3 different industries
- The 3 additional actions on how to develop winning strategic initiatives
Why strategic initiatives fail
There is research indicating that organizations fail to execute up to 70% of their strategic objectives. We highlight the most common reasons for them.
Lack of alignment
This is not a direct reason for failed initiatives, but it is the most important issue to address when executing your strategy. Your initiatives express your priorities.
If your organization’s priorities are not the right ones and they don’t address the most pressing matters, then whether you’re successful at completing your strategic initiatives or not is irrelevant.
Executing misaligned initiatives will fracture your organization and will prevent it from moving as a unit.
That’s not the desired outcome.
💡Set your priorities right & develop initiatives that represent them.
Lack of focus
Having too many priority goals is the same as having none. Attempting to pursue every opportunity is futile and has disastrous outcomes. You scatter your resources and end up incapable of supporting your people to achieve meaningful results.
Focus is a superpower. When Steve Jobs went back to Apple in 1997, he reduced the company’s products from 350 to 10. He essentially eliminated 340 distractions. That was a tough, necessary decision but also one that saved the company.
Treat your strategic initiatives the same way. Minimize their amount. This will enable you to reallocate your resources in such a way, that they are adequately supported.
That includes your people. It’s not uncommon to define a new strategic initiative and have no people to support it.
💡Resources are limited. Fuel a few but powerful initiatives.
Lack of discipline
One uncomfortably common reason for failing strategic initiatives is discipline, but not in the development part, rather in the execution part. In the process of implementing your strategy and chasing down your goals, new opportunities will eventually emerge.
You will be tempted to chase those opportunities down and dedicate some of your resources to that front. That’s a mistake. When a new opportunity arises, the default reaction of the organization should be to question it.
Pose the question of relevance: Is it relevant to our strategy?
An affirmative answer means that it adds value in the form of direct progress to a specific initiative. If it is simply another thing that you can do that will offer some, but not considerable, progress to your goal, then reject it.
Develop strategic discipline by not subtracting resources from well-written strategic initiatives. Instead, stay committed to your initial plan so you can speed up the necessary changes.
Again, discipline is important. It generates a competitive advantage by concentrating resources and everyone’s will on what matters most.
💡Challenge anything that claims a cut from your resources, time, and attention.
How to write strategic initiatives
Develop SMART initiatives
Like every goal, a strategic initiative has to be SMART, meaning:
- Specific - This is your first step to explain more concretely your strategic aspirations.
- Measurable - Numbers enable tracking the progress of your goal. When you hit the numbers, you know you hit your goal.
- Attainable - Bold is good but unachievable is not. Ground your initiative to reality to motivate your people.
- Relevant - This goes back to alignment. Choose a goal that relates to your strategic aspirations and is a true priority.
- Time-bound - Have you seen a goal being achieved without a specific deadline? We haven’t. Put an end date to your initiative to create some urgency.
For example, if your focus area is “International Growth”, then a good strategic initiative for it could be “Acquire 20% of our revenue from foreign markets by the end of 2022”.
Apart from those qualities, however, we’ve found that a few more facilitate the execution of your strategy and result in developing the “winning” part of winning strategic initiatives.
A strategic initiative is explanatory of its respective focus area. It expresses how leadership interprets it and understands it. Whenever an employee refers to that initiative, they know which decision to make to follow the organization’s direction.
An informative initiative creates and clarifies options. Every decision is essentially a choice and a winning initiative informs the people which choice to make to stay aligned to the bigger picture and move the organization in the desired direction.
There is one person responsible for each initiative. Having a specific person accountable for the progress ensures its timely completion because it creates ownership and empowers the owner to make the necessary decisions.
Add a second co-owner, if you have to, but no more. Rather, include as many collaborators as you want. However, you want one or two people to be accountable for it and drive its progress.
Strategic initiatives examples
Here are industry-specific strategic initiatives examples:
Healthcare strategic initiatives
- Develop an Age-Friendly Health System Model and spread it to 20% of US hospitals and health systems by 31st Dec 2021 - Jane Doe
- Connect 50 hospitals with providers of safer practices to reduce maternal mortality and morbidity by 31 Mar 2022 - John Doe
- Increase customer access to our medicine by 40% in the State of Louisiana by 15nth Jun 2022 - Jane Doe
Manufacturing strategic initiatives
- Reduce serious on-site malfunctions from 40% to 15% by 31st Dec. 2022 - John Doe
- Reduce the number of accidents and injuries to <10% by 31st Apr 2022 - Jane Doe
- Meet the new sustainability regulations by 31st Dec 2022 - John Doe
Retail strategic initiatives
- Develop a real-time customer feedback system and incorporate it across the top 50% performing stores by 31 May 2022 - Jane Doe
- Open 12 new stores in key locations in Europe by 31st Dec 2021 - John Doe
- Decrease wasted products by 5% by 15th July - Jane Doe
💡Build SMART strategic initiatives that are informative and have one clear owner.
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What people forget when developing strategic initiatives
We’ve mentioned that the success of your strategic initiatives can’t be attributed to a single event. That’s true not only in terms of the aligned projects but also in terms of your organization’s approach to the strategic process.
One common mistake that most organizations make is that they pitch their strategy to their people. After the planning process has been completed, leadership presents the results, the new strategy, to the employees.
Provide context to your strategic initiatives
There are multiple drawbacks to that approach. First of all, the decisions that describe the direction of the organization are usually presented out of context.
Due to time constraints or simply because leadership deemed them irrelevant, it decides to omit the thought process and the factors that determined the specific parts of the strategic plan. It presents only the final version of it, without justifying it.
As a result, the plan feels alien to the people. The more differences it displays from the current one, the less people will identify with it. Remember, though, your people will execute the strategy, so they need to understand and agree with it.
Communicate thus not only the content of your strategic plan but also its context. No strategic initiative exists in a vacuum. They all came about through a process that includes opportunity detection, risk assessment, and prioritization.
You don’t have to go into all the details, but you need to provide insight on the process beyond just its results. For example, explain why you rejected certain initiatives that your people might have expected to see or how you mitigate the risks that your people are most concerned with.
The right way to communicate your strategy is to expose it. Present it once you decide to roll with it, but then go beyond that and expose it. Give your people the ability to refer back to your strategic plan so they can inform their decisions whenever the need arises.
💡The content of your strategy is irrelevant without the context. Communicate both.
Involve people to build ownership
Another drawback to a simple strategy presentation is that it creates a gap between the organization’s leadership team and the people on the front line.
Many organizations mistakenly believe that their employees aren’t suited or qualified to provide valuable input to the strategy discussions. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
Even for massive organizations with multiple layers of leadership separating the top with the bottom of the corporate hierarchy, an efficient system of bottom-up feedback is invaluable.
The people that are on the front line and have direct knowledge of the customer carry a practical understanding of the procedures and the potential hindrances of executing a new strategy. The absence of that knowledge from the strategic discussions leaves them insular.
Developing an internal system that includes as many of your organization’s people as possible achieves two important goals.
First, it grounds your strategic initiatives to realistic expectations by informing them of the most critical and impactful issues of their implementation. It even creates space to develop solutions to the problems that otherwise would impede their execution or even bring them to a complete halt.
Second, it creates trust and ownership. When you include your people in the discussions of your strategy, it sends a strong message that you trust them and value their opinion.
Consequently, your people feel they‘re contributing to the strategic development process and end up owning the strategic initiatives. They feel they have invested in the creation of the strategy and grow a strong desire to see the plan successfully executed.
💡Invite your people early in the strategic discussions to foster trust and ownership.
Develop an assessment habit
Adapt or become obsolete. Fast. Stagnant strategies are lethal. Although committing to the initial strategic initiatives that you develop is a sign of focus, there comes a time that you’ll need to change them.
Adjusting your strategy is part of the process of adapting to significant changes in the environment. After all, the world is rapidly changing. However, to avoid falling into the trap of chasing down distractions disguised as golden opportunities, you need to have a reliable process installed.
In regular intervals, smaller than three months, perform a strategy assessment. Determining the length of those intervals depends on your industry and the strategic initiatives you’ve chosen. We recommend starting by making it a monthly habit and then adjusting it to your needs.
In your attempt to establish a reliable assessment habit you’ll encounter two very frequent challenges.
The evaluation meetings will be filled with debates and discussions that end up looping, taking the attention away from the actual goal: your strategic initiatives’ assessment. However, it’s easily addressable beforehand by creating a clear and specific agenda that focuses on the next steps and by defining strict end times for the meetings.
If you achieve to preserve the purpose of the meetings, then you’ll quickly extract immense value out of them. That’ll make the next challenge easier to overcome. That is commitment.
Committing to an internal assessment habit is one of the hardest things for an organization to do and also one of the most valuable. Even a simple conversation that raises questions regarding the relevance of your strategic initiatives is enough to build alignment.
💡Commit to a reliable assessment habit to adjust your strategy fast.
The success of a strategic initiative is not the result of a single action or even project. It’s an aggregation of many things executed efficiently and effectively. Below we have collected the key takeaways from our guide:
- Determine your priorities before choosing your initiatives
- Choose only a handful of initiatives, no more. You have limited resources
- Avoid distractions that divide your focus and resources
- Develop SMART initiatives
- Make them informative and assign an owner