To re-cap, the 4A model of strategic execution is a system of interrelated and interdependent factors. Here we have looked at alignment and ability. But executional capability also requires infrastructure, processes, structure, and systems to make things scalable and repeatable. And the ability to shift rapidly in response to change.

For an introduction to the 4A strategy model, please see Strategic Execution: Performance Excellence With 4 A’s.

A few years ago, fast-food behemoth McDonald’s attempted to broaden its customer base. Introducing things like salads and wraps to its menu in an effort to woo health-conscious customers (who almost never ate there), the company started to neglect its core: making great burgers. After losing $500 million over a five-year period and seeing newcomers break into the market with better, gourmet burgers, McDonald’s announced it would re-embrace its identity as a fast-food chain and worry less about customers it was never likely to win over.

The lesson learned? The importance of alignment.

The First A: Alignment

If you are not fully aligned around your core strategy, your organization is in danger of getting sidetracked, distracted and diverted. Your priorities run the risk of becoming dispersed and your resources scattered. This can lead to a continual shift in focus and diffused impact.

Misalignment can see your leadership divert attention from mission-critical objectives and goals and strategic investments. Just as McDonald’s was sidetracked by the gravitational pull of the latest industry trend, it’s only too easy to lose sight of long-term priorities. And once your organization starts to lose traction, spinning its wheels and dropping forward momentum, your employees may get disheartened and start to disengage.

Alignment can be improved when organizations do three things:

Step 1: Establish a Clear Strategic Intent

Step one is to get everyone on board through a compelling focus on strategic intent. Why? A clearly articulated strategic intent can energize your organization around an ambitious vision of the future. Interestingly, evidence suggests that it often inspires the organization to set off toward a goal that, at the time, they may not be fully capable of achieving. But it engages collective ambition and higher aspiration. It can be a stretch experience for sure, but one that provides the emotional and intellectual energy for the journey to the future.

So have you established clear strategic intent? Ask yourself the following questions: 

  • How well is your strategy understood and supported by all managers?
  • Are your strategic goals clearly prioritized by your leaders and regularly communicated throughout the enterprise?
  • Does your executive team model all the behaviors necessary to translate strategy into performance?

Step 2: Raise Shared Expectations

Establishing clear intent alone isn’t enough. You need to bring the strategic intent to life, give it energy and build collective ambition and aspiration. The key is to convert energy from the top leadership to the rest of the organization through shared expectations for excellence.

As one senior executive we work with puts it: “It’s all about managing expectations.” So is everyone aiming high in your organization? Ask yourself the following questions:

  • How do you establish and reinforce shared expectations for high performance throughout our organization?
  • Which values, behaviors and norms of excellence are embedded in your culture?
  • How does your culture encourage employees to challenge one another and bring forth new ideas?

Step 3: Ensure Mutual Accountability for Results  

Too many organizations don’t have a solid foundation for making accountability explicit. And even fewer expect the collaboration and shared accountability that drives alignment. In many organizations, performance management is perfunctory.

In well aligned organizations, teams take ownership for their performance and share clear, candid feedback with each other. So how does your company compare? Check yourself against these questions:

  • How are your managers held accountable for actions and achieving results that support our strategy?
  • How are rewards connected to both individual and team performance?
  • To what extent do individuals hold themselves and others accountable for results across the entire enterprise?

Building alignment is crucial to your firm’s success in executing strategy. But it’s only part of the story.

The second of the four primary factors that determine execution excellence — the Four A’s — is ability.

Learn more about the 4A framework
Strategic Execution: Driving Breakthrough Performance

The Second A: Ability

When Satya Nadella took over as CEO of Microsoft, he knew that the company’s future depended on developing new capabilities and new ways of working in a mobile- and cloud-first world of computing. The importance of talent and human capital had always been central to Microsoft’s success. But Nadella also understood the need to (re)build a leadership team that could reconfigure Microsoft and build its talent pool around a culture of innovation and collaboration that would go on to take the company into new markets, new services and new technologies.

Strategic execution means not only delivering on today’s priorities, but also building the capacity to invent the future. So how do organizations nurture that kind of ability — building effective leadership teams, ensuring a pipeline of key talent and improving collaborative capability across the enterprise?

Our research shows that you can improve execution ability when you do three things:

Step 1: Focus on Leadership

Your top management team members are the ones who initiate the game plan and have responsibilities for and to others who will ultimately make strategy happen. They are that key point of translation from strategic intent to operational directives. Yet it’s often a challenge to get the right people in the right roles. There needs to be a balance across the players in terms of knowledge of the business, knowledge of their functions and ability to collaborate across the team.

You need to put teamwork at the top of your priorities within your C-suite. If it’s lacking, address it. Don’t hesitate to place some of your most trusted, and most promising, executives into new stretch roles.  Next, build an effective support team around them and bring in others with complementary skills to balance out the team.

So do you have the right people in the right roles to take your company forward? Ask yourself the following questions:

  • In what ways do your leaders exhibit the breadth and depth of skills, competencies and experience needed for breakthrough performance?
  • Do you have the right mix of leaders who bring out the best in one another on behalf of the organization?
  • Do your leaders inspire and empower others to achieve organizational goals?

Step 2: Establish a Leadership and Talent Pipeline

The CEO and leadership team are critical to strategy execution. Yet the people that really drive it are deeper in your organization. The real traction happens with middle-level managers and rank-and-file employees. It is critical, therefore, to build a highly powered talent engine throughout your company.

So is your organization’s talent management system as effective as it needs to be? Are you building capacity in terms of both the stock and flow of skilled individuals in key roles? Ask yourself these questions:

  • Have you identified “mission critical” positions and staffed them with your top performers?
  • Do you have a robust system for talent assessment to identify, develop and retain high-quality employees?
  • Are you investing in a talent pipeline to ensure a continual flow of “next generation” talent, people who are capable of leading your organization into the future?
  • Do your managers spend time coaching and developing employees and teams?

Step 3: Build Collaborative Capability

Collaboration is probably one of the most frequently used words in business today — and for good reason. In our increasingly connected world, individual talent is not enough to cut the mustard in terms of strategy execution.

Joint decision-making, pooling resources and sequencing actions to drive performance are all contingent on effective collaboration. And that’s not all. Collaborative capability is also a multiplier of talent. In academia, we call this human capital leverage. When senior professionals with experience partner with more junior associates to spread their knowledge, everyone wins. Clients win because they get better service at lower cost. Organizations win because they get the most out of their teams. And the employees win because they maximize their contribution while growing and learning from others across the firm.

But collaboration as a talent multiplier is more than just teamwork. It goes beyond the willingness of individuals to cooperate. It depends crucially on developing shared understanding and collective knowledge. Think about the highest performing teams you’ve seen. Flight crews, fire fighters, ER units and the like work together in a synchronized manner, seemingly with one mind, based on their deep understanding of the others’ expertise.

So is your organization prioritizing its collaborative capability? Ask yourself these questions:

  • How well do managers and employees work together to make everyone better?
  • Do teams have discretion to make decisions and act using their best judgement?
  • Is there a spirit of collaboration that cuts across business units and functions?

To re-cap, the 4A model of strategic execution is a system of interrelated and interdependent factors. Here we have looked at alignment and ability. But executional capability also requires infrastructure, processes, structure, and systems to make things scalable and repeatable. And the ability to shift rapidly in response to change.

In the next article, we cover the architecture and agility elements of the 4A framework, delving into aspects of organizational design and how to learn, innovate and thrive in a world of disruption.

To help assess your company’s execution capability, take the online Strategy Execution Survey, based on the 4A framework.

The preceding is drawn from Scott Snell and Ken Carrig’s forthcoming book, Strategic Execution: Driving Breakthrough Performance in Business, published by Stanford Business Books, an imprint of Stanford University Press. Nominated for the Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award, it’s available for purchase on (20 percent off with discount code SNELL20), or your favorite independent bookstore.