Bringing your strategy to the front line

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The following post originally appeared on the Harvard Business Review Blog Network.

I was struck last week by a review of Inside Apple, the book by Adam Lashinsky that promises to decode the secrets of Apple's success. The review summarizes what sets Apple apart from other companies: a relentless product focus, a culture of delivery, and an extraordinary marketing engine that communicates the magic of each new Apple offer.

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But as the review rightly notes, "Many managers would lay claim to being inspired by the same or similar goals, The difference with the Apple that Jobs created is that it actually seems to have lived by them."

Apple is not alone. IKEA has been one of the most successful furniture stores of all time. Most management teams understand the IKEA model, and many furniture companies have tried to replicate it but so far none have succeeded. The difference? IKEA is obsessed with execution and consistently delivers on its model.

Again and again as we hear management teams around the world describe their aspirations and challenges, this theme — actually living your strategy day in and day out — resonates as one of the most important business challenges of our times. Strategy is less about the new, new thing than it is about actually delivering on the goals you set. A successful strategy must be translated into front-line activities that are delivered well, everywhere, every day.

Simply put, it's about the transformational power of routines.

The word "routine" implies an ordinary, everyday occurrence. But if you can make your company's routine behavior mirror your strategy, you can transform your business. So when I work with companies, I'm always looking to see if managers are translating strategies into front line routines.

Some conversations with executive teams in the last week alone:

Monday: Video conference with head of a leading consumer good company in Asia. They are winning in Asia--and everywhere else, for that matter. I asked him, if your CEO attributed your success in last decade to one thing, what would it be? His answer: the company's training programs, which are entirely focused on developing a culture of maniacal focus on execution and hitting targets.

Tuesday: Two-hour meeting with the new CEO of a global healthcare company. I asked why he took the job. His answer: "This is a great opportunity because I can focus on what I do best — getting people to actually do what they say they will do. There aren't big unanswered strategic issues — the upside will come from focus and delivery."

Wednesday: All-day workshop with a Scandinavian consumer goods company. After a two-hour debate about underperformance they concluded: "We agree on all these initiatives in our Executive Committee, and we launch them with great intent and fanfare. But do we really stick with them for multiple years, or do we get bored and start something new?"

Thursday: Two-hour meeting with the CEO of a European office services company. We discussed all his initiatives, all of which were perfectly sensible. I then asked him what he thought was the biggest issue he faced with implementation. He answered, "Everything is patchy. When we're good, we're really, really good. But mostly, well, frankly we're just patchy."

The secret to success is actually quite simple. At great companies, management teams focus on a few ways to differentiate themselves from their competition, they translate those into front-line routines, they make sure the organization supports these routines (or gets out of the way!), and they thrive on customer feedback, improving their routines over time.

It's a combination that my colleague Chris Zook and I call the Great Repeatable Model, and it's what distinguishes the great from the merely good.

Good companies usually have nearly all the same ideas and competitive intent as the great ones. But they never execute everywhere, every time. They launch big initiatives that are wildly successful in a few places, but fizzle out everywhere else. They respond with newer, better initiatives that also are never fully delivered.

This is one reason why 80% of management teams believe they deliver a superior proposition, but only 8% of the time do the customers of those companies think they are receiving a differentiated proposition, as we found in our research.

The moral? Sustained success is less about the new big idea and more about buying into and living by a few simple ideas that remain at the top of the management agenda for multiple years. That's a key message of our book, Repeatability, and we hope that more companies will learn to harness the transformational power of front-line routines.

James Allen is a partner in Bain & Company’s London office and co-leader the firm’s Global Strategy Practice. He is co-author, with Chris Zook, of the upcoming book: Repeatability: Build Enduring Businesses for a World of Constant Change (HBR Press, March 2012).