Filling The Gap Between Strategy And Execution

We speak to Ricardo Vargas, Executive Director at Brightline Initiative


Organizations invest tremendous amounts of time and resources in their strategic planning processes, yet many struggle when it comes to the actual implementation. According to recent research by Kotter International, 70% of new, large-scale strategic initiatives fail. These echo the findings in the report just released by The Economist Intelligence Unit.

The reasons for such high failure rate are multiple, but often come down to one simple factor - implementation was simply not considered enough during the creation of the strategy. It's like trying to take your driving test without bringing a car. You can prepare as much as you want, but if you forget to consider whether you have the resources to put your plans into practice, the hours of preparation will all have been for nothing.

Ricardo Viana Vargas is a specialist in project management and strategy implementation. Over the past 20 years, he has been responsible for more than 80 major transformation projects in several countries, covering an investment portfolio of over $20 billion. He is currently the Executive Director of the Brightline Initiative™, a coalition of leading global organizations from business, government and not for profit sectors, dedicated to providing a knowledge and networking platform that delivers insights and solutions to successfully bridge the gap between strategy design and strategy delivery. From 2012 to 2016, Ricardo Global Director of the Infrastructure and Project Management Group with the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS). Vargas has written fifteen books on the subject of project management, and also host one of the most relevant podcasts in the field, the 5 Minutes PM Podcast, with more than 4 million views.

We sat down with him ahead of his presentation at the Chief Strategy Officer Summit, which takes place in New York this December 11-12th, where he will share Brighline's 10 principles for helping organizations bridge the costly and wasteful gap between strategy design and delivery.

How did you get started in your career?

I'm a chemical engineer, so I studied chemical engineering with a masters degree in industrial engineering. I started my career in the project management area, mostly on the software side - the Microsoft project side - and became an expert and practitioner in using the project management process to help companies in different sectors, such as oil and mining. I published my first book on the subject 1998, writing 14 more since, several of which have been translated into a number of different languages.

My primary focus has been on the delivery side, making things happen, and I've worked in both the for-profit sector up to the United Nations. I started at Brightline roughly a year ago in order to become an advocate in the area and help other organizations benefit from my experience.

A report by the Economist Intelligence Unit of more than 500 senior executives worldwide found that 61% admit their organizations struggle to deliver the expected results of strategy planning, and only 56% of strategic initiatives were implemented successfully. Why do you think it's so important to bridge the gap between strategy design and delivery?

If you go look at the report, basically half of the initiatives do not succeed. This is a horrific waste of resources. Just to give you an idea, every 20 seconds, $1 million is wasted as a result of poor implementation. In a world where we face such astronomical inequality, it's simply unacceptable to not implement things properly. Brightline's intention is to become a think tank and advocate to bridge this gap and stop such devastating wastage from occurring.

Where do you see organizations going wrong? What do strategic leaders need to do differently in the future?

I strongly believe that organizations, particularly senior leaders and middle management, do not pay attention on the execution side. They develop very strong strategies and they put them on paper, but then they lack the ability and the capability to implement them. They don't check if they have the capability and they don't check what the cultural impact of that change will have. This is because they don't think it's their role or responsibility. This is why we at Brightline created the guiding principles, to help and support leaders in understanding that they need to consider it.

How is technology helping to bridge the gap between plan and implementation? What technologies do you think will help in the future?

Technology is a two-sided coin, providing organizations with positives and negatives. Firstly, on the downside, technology creates an extremely fast-paced requirement for implementation. This adds a degree of complexity that many organizations are not equipped to deal with. On the other hand, it's also a very strong enabler. For example, if you use AI and machine learning processes, you are able to acquire very solid and deep information without the need for a massive degree of technical knowledge. Ultimately, this means you can use the knowledge and experience you do have in tandem with the technology to predict and better understand future behavior, which is vital for bridging the gap between a strategy and implementation. This allows for deeper analysis, at lower cost, and at a faster speed.

Can you tell us a bit about what the Brightline initiative is and how it is helping to solve the gap between initiative and implementation?

Brightline is a non-commercial initiative of leading organizations. These organizations decided to work together to do three different things. Firstly, they wanted to support, sponsor, and develop research in this area. They wanted to work with the likes of the Economist to make the challenge more visible to everybody, create the Guiding Principles that are creative commons and free for people to download. These are 10 principles that will help senior leaders to better understand the challenges around making things happen.

The second is to boost networking. For example, an event like the CSO Summit is a great platform for us to share our core beliefs, to share what we believe, and to make sure that we can do great things happen together. It's an opportunity to talk to senior leaders and increase the awareness around our goal - a goal that will also provide a tremendous boost to their bottom lines.

The third one is capability building. This means developing the people and talent around strategy execution. We are planning to sponsor online courses, executive education, and so forth. Success for us is when leaders understand the gap between initiative and implementation and it becomes part of their natural routine.

Are there any other speakers at the summit you are looking forward to hearing from?

I'm looking forward to hearing from absolutely everyone. I want to see the different capabilities they have, I want to hear the different challenges they face and how they are handling them, and I particularly want to know how they are handling the cultural change that comes as the result of their major strategies being put into place. Every transformation project comes with a massive amount of change and people hate change, so I want to know how different players in the space are handling this, and how can they are making sure that their organization changes rapidly without dramatically impacting people's lives.

You can hear more from Ricardo, as well as other industry leaders, at the Chief Strategy Officer Summit. View the full agenda here.


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