Ep 011 | Decoding Strategic Execution: From Ideas to Impact


What Is (and Isn’t) Strategy?

April 3, 2024

About this episode

Sometimes a strategy fails because it’s a poor strategy. But sometimes it fails because it’s not really a strategy at all.

So what are the attributes of a strategy—and how does it differ from other measures implemented to help an organization achieve its goals? Joining us to answer this question (and many others) is Dr. Alok Tewari, Vice President of Operations Strategy and Execution. Alok has leveraged over 20 years of experience in strategy and global business transformations to cultivate an understanding of organizational goals and the multilayered approach to developing strategy within a variety of industries.

Join us as we discuss:

  • Separating an organization’s operational aspects from its strategic actions
  • Implementing technology for strategic ends—even in legacy industries
  • How (and when) to recognize and admit when a strategy needs to be abandoned
  • Communication and alignment across departments to effectively implement strategy

Guest Intros

Dr. Alok Tewari, CPCU

Vice President, Operations Strategy and Execution

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Transcript 📝

Jonathan  0:03  

Welcome back everybody to another episode of the strategy gap. Today's conversation should be a fun one around on thing strategy, what makes a strategy what isn't a strategy and how to adjust your strategy based on your market that you're in? Joining us for the conversation today is all Loke Tiwari, he brings a diverse background that includes over 20 years of experience in strategy and global business transfer really formations related to the insurance, Engineering and Technology domains. He's an extremely well studied guest as he's a mechanical engineer, a chartered Property and Casualty Underwriter has his master's in insurance management from Boston University. And he recently completed a doctorate in management in the University of Maryland. But that's not it. He also is currently pursuing a law degree from UConn School of Law. Today, he's a member of the operational leadership team in his organization, where he helps develop and implement strategies and assist leadership and facilitating a strong environment of accountability by overseeing the reporting and tracking. Next is a key sponsor an advocate for initiatives, where helps identify and create new opportunities for operational excellence and business growth. Hello, welcome to the show.

Alok  1:12  

Jonathan, and Jill, thank you so much for having me.

Jonathan  1:17  

Yeah, looking forward to it. So we went a little bit in the introduction. But in your experience, you have a vast domain expertise, you've been able to see a wide variety of different strategies. One thing Joe and I see a lot and that we've talked about with with other leaders, is that strategy means something different to really to everybody and to every organization. And many of the times strategies aren't really strategies in your mind, from your expertise. How do you define strategy? What is and what isn't a strategy?

Alok  1:49  

That's an excellent question to start with. Strategy is something that an organization creates to attain specific goals. It's not one size fits all strategy can be an operational strategy or data strategy or technology strategy, or marketing strategy, your sales strategy, but strategy overall, all strategies in an organization they need to try to attain a specific goal. A strategy, which many people mistake for a project plan is not a project plan. Strategy is something what do we want to ultimately accomplish? I'll give you an example. Anything that we do within an organization, ultimately, there are few reasons of why we exist. One of the primary reasons is, of course, to make our customers successful. But in order to do that, we also want to make money with those as the guiding principles, customer success and revenue generation, we work backwards and create multiple kinds of strategies, whether it's sales or marketing, or behind the scenes operational or any revenue generation product or technology. One of the things which I've rarely seen in my experiences, while we have multiple departments, and every department has their own strategy, somewhere, somehow they all need to come together in order to work for that one north star that the companies are striving for. You're one of the questions was that what is not strategy? And I alluded that strategy is not a project plan. Strategy is not project management. It's much bigger than that. It's it's entering into the realms of the unknown, what can be accomplished, what cannot be accomplished? Can we define that? That in a nutshell, at a high level is how I perceive what strategy is.

Joe  3:44  

I appreciate that perspective. And you mentioned the idea of what a strategy isn't I think we all can agree that a project might be the result of a strategy, but they're not the same. They're not synonymous. But you mentioned that everything that every strategy that's been selected, even if it's by different departments, should align to Northstar. I mean, you say, it makes me think a singular, but in your perspective, is there how many numbers of like, what is the perfect number of priorities an organization should have before you start to lose focus? Is it one, is it five? Is it three? What have you seen be generally the sweet spot because most of the clients we work with struggle with having too many things they want to focus on and can't call the list down to a more manageable number.

Alok  4:26  

So not the number of strategies that we can focus on depends upon the vantage point we set out for a CEO. A CEO is thinking five to 10 years ahead, and that CEO may have multiple focus areas that person may want to drive, which then ultimately feeds down to different departments. Someone sitting within a department may have five to seven key objectives or key strategies that they want to work on. But that may be too much. It depends upon the size of the department or as well, let's take a startup, if it's a startup, and if the founder and CEO is just bootstrapping it, they need, in my opinion, they need to have one core strategy that they're working towards. But if it's an established organization with multi billion dollars in revenue, they can have the luxury of having multiple strategies, again, depends upon the vantage point you sit in, in my opinion, what I have personally experienced is, if I'm working with anywhere more than three core areas, my focus tends to get diluted. And that's fair, everyday morning, I reassure myself that these are the three areas I'm working on rest, everything else is tactical operational tasks that just need to happen. That's part of the job. But the focus areas are these three over a horizon of anywhere from 18 to 36. Months.

Jonathan  5:55  

Got it? Yeah, you mentioned one key point there outside of identifying the number of things that are important. It's finding a way to separate those operational aspects from the strategic aspects. I know, in my experience, I've talked with several leaders and organizations, and they talk about their plans. And it's a bunch of things that, hey, we want to continue doing this, or we want to slightly improve this, or it's the things that are keeping the lights on and that therefore is our strategic plan. How do you take a step back and separate those more operational keeping the lights on things, from the truly transformative actions, or initiatives that are going to change the direction of where you're headed?

Alok  6:34  

That that's a great point that you raise, because that that comes into the realms again, of what is strategy versus what is a transformational activity versus what is keep the lights on running projects that we have to do. And that's where the key really comes in as, and then people talk about transformation strategy strategy, about about as transformation, and so as initiatives as a small strategy that I'm working on. But ultimately, it's all about the big picture. What are we really aiming for? If we are talking about launching a new product? A new product strategy is completely different than having just a small business, which is not making money, how do we turn it around? How do we transform? That's an operational organizational strategy versus in the previous example, that's a product strategy. So again, it depends upon what is it that we truly want to accomplish? Like one of the areas I'm working on is that for one of our engineering products, what's the new market that we should explore? And when we are starting with such a broad brush that what's that new market? On a map of the world, we can pick up any country we want to get in? And that's where the strategy is, what is the product? Where is our market, where is our customers? Who is a competitor? How much market does the competitor have, and then we zero down on a particular area that this is a place where we should go ahead and hire, let's say few employees set up an office and go all in over there. So it all depends upon the ultimate goal that we want to accomplish, and how we want to accomplish but it all drills down from the top level leadership and how we come down.

Joe  8:25  

In so the name of the podcast is the strategy gap. So I think you've done a good job explaining about what strategies should be selected and how many and depends on the lifecycle of the company. But the issue sometimes is the ability to then take those strategies and make them become a reality. And so what have you seen leaders do to effectively give their people space to execute the strategy because many times it's deemed as a strategy that's given to somebody is something in addition to their day job, because you mentioned keeping the lights on some organizations, that's their main job, if they're working in health care, they're working in certain industries, there truly is a need to keep the lights on. And then whatever time you had leftover in your infinite free time, work on this other thing we know that doesn't work. So for your experience, or from things you've seen, how have leaders carved out enough time for people to actually give a strategy its proper attention so that it increases the chance of actually getting executed.

Alok  9:21  

I think you have raised an excellent point over here. And that's that's something which I've, in my career I've seen in multiple organizations, that we sit in a room for few weeks, a few months, we come up with a strategy, we give it to a department to execute and it dies. I've been on the consulting side as well and as a as a consultant as a management consultant. we interacted with multiple customers and give them strategies on how either they need to expand their market or transform their department or a technology strategy. And again six months later it has died down. So in my my current role, my role right now is added an execution. And I was absolutely adamant that I want to add the word execution. Because I don't want to again, repeat what has happened past in my life strategies die, I want to make sure that there is continuity. Now from a departmental leadership perspective, a true leader truly understands that to really do something transformative to attain a particular strategy, you have to stay with it, or you need to dedicate some people to it, you need to have some kind of a reporting or metrics to report back on how we are doing also depends upon the time horizon, anything again, in my experience, anything that spans more than a year or so will tend to get diluted when we get through the four seasons of any organizational lifecycle. But anything which is crisp anywhere from 90 days to maybe 180 days, if we want to accomplish something that's definitely accomplishable. So again, it's from a department leader perspective, it's bringing that execution mindset, that reporting mindset, what are the key KPIs that we are trying to accomplish? Putting them as far as the operational reports and just keeping an eye on it, we'll make sure that that strategy comes to fruition. And then again, it's not just about creating a strategy and then working on it, as we start working on it, there will be a need to refine the strategy. It's a continuous planning mechanism. And there, there are instances where in if you're trying to work with a new technology, we realize four months later that maybe this is not the right time for the technology, or maybe we are too ahead of our time, it may not make enough money for us. And that's where that continuous thinking about strategies is really essential.

Jonathan  11:47  

Yeah, and that is a good conversation point there is, it's important to understand the timeframe and who's working on what and focus on execution, but you get to a certain course in the road, and you need to understand, hey, is this strategy actually working? Is it not? Do I need to change course, do I need to continue on the same course and apply different sorts of resources? How have you been able to identify across your strategies initiatives, in a simple way, what's working and what's not.

Alok  12:15  

So in my job, in my day to day job, one of my tasks is I have to continuously talk with all the department leaders with all the areas where strategies are being formulated. Because you would realize that even in a small organization, there are silos that get developed, as well as their areas of leaders and they don't want to lose control of those areas. So in my my organization, and then in my day to day job, it's not just about the strategy that I and my department have created. It's about working with other partners, working with the vendors, with our customers, and other departments trying to see what are they trying to accomplish within their purview, and then see where do the alignments exist. But with that set, theoretically, a true strategy is something which thinks through all the possibilities, all the risks that may come in, but then that becomes too time consuming. In a practical day to day work, we have to formulate something we have to get started. And we have to see whether it sticks in the market or not. So to answer your question, Jonathan, it's about that continuous conversation, which is essential, keep talking with others keep talking about how to align everyone's strategy. And as an organization, are we really marching in one direction? are we really trying to accomplish together? are we stepping on each other? And in the course of those conversations, that course correction, and course alignment automatically happens?

Jonathan  13:50  

God Yeah. And that makes perfect sense. I think one thing that you're diving a bit deeper in there, most organizations and most of us would agree, thinking the intention of what you're saying, but when it actually comes down to how do I best connect across the organizations? How do I regularly have these conversations to stay aligned? People just get too busy. So it's impossible to stay focused on what strategies and I guess a different word of strategies? What ways have you continuously focused on that communication, so that you're not one month down the year and you all of a sudden that that goal is like a New Year's resolution, that goal of staying better connected, is now by the wayside?

Alok  14:30  

It happens once you have mentioned actually happens. So it's one of the ways really is it has to drill down from top to the bottom. There are organizational objectives, the organizational focus areas OKRs, or something and certain departments that we manage. It's all about, do we have the right level of objectives from each area? Are those objectives aligned? And if objectives are aligned, then we start drilling down that to attain those objectives and What are we really working? What's practical? What's a project versus what's a long term strategy? There's something called as key topics. As leaders within the organization, we do get together and we talk about those key topics, that are those key topics still relevant. Are they satisfying the objectives that we define for the year? Are we still on track with those, and then we have a department we have a reporting and Financial Planning and Analysis area, the job is to make sure that they keep the leaders on track. For every objective that we create. There also, are two things that go hand in hand one is the cost benefit analysis that we do with every strategy, or every objective we want to achieve, as well as what is the financial gain that could come from that particular strategy? Can? Can there be a financial gain? Many times there are not because we are venturing into the unknown. But if there is, can we measure those are there any metrics on a quarterly basis, we can do that. Now this is over and above outside of the entire organizational operational areas which are happening PMO is one area which manages projects, it's outside of PMO, outside of operations, it's more at a strategic level with the leaders trying to monitor the objectives, monitor key topics and see are we on track with them or not.

Joe  16:24  

And you bring up a good point that we have on this podcast quite a bit, the idea of actually developing metrics for your various items you mentioned, sometimes you can't have a financial return, there are certain things in business that are just a cost of doing business. And maybe you're able to take expense out of the system, but you're not creating new revenue. But sometimes many of our clients struggle with the idea that there isn't any metric that's developed for a strategy. And at the end of the day, they're just think I think the strategy is working. It's more of a conversation versus a math problem. And so have you developed any sort of frameworks to make it easier to develop? Metrics that makes sense and even better? I think the utopia would be that everybody has a similar set of metrics for each of the strategies, depending on doesn't depend on the department. They're all doing it in a uniform manner. So I guess two part question, have you found a way to make it easy for people to like, say, here are the metrics I'm being tied to? And if you had any success, then making them uniform across every department so that when you're meeting, it's not like you're singing from different sheets of music?

Alok  17:25  

So unfortunately, not.

Joe  17:26  

I wish there was maybe cracked it. I mean, no,

Alok  17:31  

it's not there. And I wish there was something over there, it's let me get to the definition of strategy for everyone. The word strategy means something or the other. There's no common definition of strategy for someone just working as part of their day to day job and maybe making a sales call. And trying to get that customer, they might say my sales strategy is working, the customer is responding back versus another department, which is trying to launch a completely new innovative product. That's their strategy. So no, I wish there was some uniformity, not just within the organization, but within the industry as well. And a systematic way to monitor it, I have not seen it, I wish something like that existed, it would make reporting and tracking so much simpler. If for nothing else, it's actually helping killing the initiators, which are not working on which we are just drying our resources,

Joe  18:26  

you have the idea that the idea of some costs coming into play where people hold on to a project or an initiative that is aligned to a strategy longer than they probably should have, because they don't want to admit defeat, or they don't want to act like the decision they made in January, that they think that every decision that was made in that boardroom for those few weeks that you mentioned, is somehow going to exist in reality and not have any scrutiny. I mean, for every good idea we have bad news can happen. And we just have to be honest, and most people probably would admit, they hold on to something a little longer than they probably should, in the hopes of maybe not losing face or having a certain way. So I think if you apply what you mentioned earlier, if the metrics are all agreed upon for a particular strategy, or not trending and we're saying over the course of a few months, not some quick decision that we all feel comfortable then pulling the ripcord that's easier said than done. I don't think most people would actually agree to that. Because it's there's implications but in a perfect world, and we're talking about on this podcast, you know, what we can aspire to be people would be evolved enough to say I really thought the strategy was going to work we're six months in every metric is telling us it isn't we're gonna stop spending money on this and shifted over here. I wish more people talk that way. It would help reduce the strategy gap. But there's still a long way to go on that.

Alok  19:44  

Yeah, absolutely. Right. This is one pain area which repeats in every organization.

Jonathan  19:51  

Yeah, I think the only I don't even remember to if it's a framework but the best example I can think of is back the the Franklin Covey the disciplines of EQ execution. And there's all the different aspects of that. But the common example that anybody would would recognize is the JFK, we said, I want to send a man to the moon and back by the end of the decade, right? It's following that comprehension of the SMART goals where it's, he doesn't just want to send someone to the moon, you want to make sure they get they get back. And it's actually by a certain time period. So, you know, that's not uniform across everybody, but it's more so the components, I think, that are uniform, based off of where you sit within the organization.

Alok  20:30  


Jonathan  20:32  

Shifting gears a little bit, I want to dig into your experience more in for lack of a better term and, you know, legacy or traditional industries, from talking to other strategy leaders, normally, these are some of the last industries to embrace technology, both its role in creating strategy. And on the execution side. How have you embraced strategy in your role on either side of that both on the leveraging it for new strategies, and then ultimately executing that strategy as well.

Alok  21:02  

So that's a great point. Firstly, the world is becoming digital. And I read it somewhere that every business is now technology first business, even a legacy business like like, I recently met a trucking vendor. And they said that we are a technology first company, and I asked them that show me how trucking business as a technology first company, and they showed me the cameras inside the truck, multiple cameras outside inside real time tracking, talking with the drivers, they're delivering the last mile delivery. And that just made me believe that the core legacy business, which is driving a truck, putting goods from one side to the another can absolutely be digitized with the latest technologies. And they are now working on a chatbot based upon chat GPD I still don't understand why. But in my mind domain over here, I work on the insurance side on technology, as well as on the engineering side. And we have been in business for last 150 years. So I've seen everything from latest innovative technologies to our core, Legacy related domain. Everything's changing, everything's being digitized. But just introducing digital technology is not a strategy. The strategy really is what can technology do to our business? Can we have that 3x in revenue, or 5x? In revenue? What would that strategy look like? Just introducing a technology or replacing legacy systems and new systems? That's a given that has to happen that may not be that innovative strategy. So Jonathan, to answer your question and my experience. Firstly, changes constant and not many people understand this people who have been in their jobs for a long period of time for decades, it's always harder to change that shift over there. But that's when we can show how our strategy will evolve how our competitors are evolving. And if we don't change track, our strategy we may be left behind as compared to our competitors. That's where when we introduce new technologies, introduced new markets introduced new products, we can turn around the legacy business with the help of technology, with the help of right strategy out there in terms of revenue generation, and really turn around that business. It's easier said than done. But I think that shift is already happening. I'll give you another example. A toothbrush, an electric toothbrush, has a motor and it has a vibrator and it has a chip in it has a battery in it. Just that simple to brush has now become really a marvel of technology. With rotary motors and sensors over there and timing devices. That's that's just the era we live in.

Joe  24:01  

You mentioned the idea like if you're sitting in a room, here's how do we 3x sales? How do we 10x sales? And here's let's say you come up with a strategy. I think the point that we're talking about, and not directly but I'm going to talk about it now is that sometimes these these strategies are great on paper, and it's if given the proper amount of time, they probably could be impactful. But most leadership, especially in the C suite, are incentivized for results today, the results like as immediate immediate as possible, and aren't given enough time potentially to see a strategy through where if they did it probably would have the result. So what is your experience been regarding making sure that there's enough patients in the room to say like, if we go with this strategy, you have to realize that we have to be okay with and this might include shareholders, it's going to take a little bit longer than you would think it's not going to be something that will result in tech sales next month. It's going to take us a good 12 to 18 months but after that we will get there. How have you managed expectations because sometimes the urge is it's not what looking within six months, let's fire this person. Let's move this around. And it's the exact opposite of what we talked about earlier, which is pulling the plug on a truly bad project or strategy is fine. Billing it too early because you're impatient isn't so great. So how have you managed or seen that manage in your career?

Alok  25:17  

Excellent by then that's where to come up with a strategy. Let's let's take a hypothetical example of 3x in revenue to come up with that strategy. A lot more goes into building that strategy. It's first understanding that is there even a market potential when we need to do that marketing study, we may need to involve consultants consulting reports and studies to get that lay of the land. Second, competitor analysis is competitor working in that domain. Third, product analysis, what does that product cannot product even get to that 3x level that we are really aiming for? Are we ready? Do we have a support staff in place? Then fourth, organizational perspective? Do we have an organization behind the scenes that can help that kind of scalability? Or are we really going to trip ourselves? And then fifth and foremost is do we have the leaders and skills to really accomplish that? We start putting a timeline over there realistically, how much time is it going to take? I wish over right in six or 12 months, we were able to three times increase our revenue. But then a traditional business established over a long period of time, that's difficult. But if we have a concentrated strategy, that in three years, this is how the steps we are going to take these markets, we will explore these products, we will launch and then ultimately, we can accomplish that. And then we set quarterly KPIs. And of course, we have to build and buffer, we have to consider risk, we have to consider failures that may happen attrition rate really comes into picture, considering all of that as it accomplishable, then let's move forward. But many times what happens is, if someone is just throwing darts in the dark or in the open and think that they will have a three time strategy without really doing the groundwork of building a true strategy ground up, it's just then we will be going from issue to issue to issue. Now with that said, this is a comprehensive strategy. And these kinds of strategies are only built maybe once or twice every few years, this model strategies as well. And those smaller strategies as someone where people can throw a dart, kill them or work with them every few months, or every few weeks as often as they want.

Jonathan  27:38  

Yeah, absolutely love that framework and kind of thinking through those five aspects. One thing you didn't mention as one of the key considerations, but you did mention a bit later on was risk and the concept of risk aversion. Certainly you have experience in the insurance space, which is all about risk. Do you factor that into the strategy conversation? Or is that more of a organizational culture aspect that you have to think about when you're in your planning and execution?

Alok  28:03  

So yes, we do think about risk. But then it also depends upon the type of business we are in. If let's say it's a technology startup I'm working with over there, the definition of risk is different than a typical insurance business are a financial business that we might be in. But it's the DNA of the organization, I work and it's the culture that anytime we create a strategy, there has to be a risk mitigation log. Now, that goes against typical intuition that if we want to really change the way, chi or change the world, we cannot start thinking about all the risks, we have to just go there, do it, prove it, have a pilot and see whether it's working or not. But behind the scenes, yes, because with every strategy, we are putting resources, there is money involved based upon the type of strategy. And if we are really working on that kind of investment, how much are we willing to spend? How much risk are we willing to take? Because it's not let's let's say a comprehensive product strategy, or a market strategy can take anywhere from two to $5 million. I'm just putting hypothetical numbers. That's an initial investment. But then if we really want to execute on that strategy, do we have that capital? Do we need to go back to our board to get that kind of money approved? On a smaller scale? It all depends upon? Do we have the right leaders in place to really take that risk, and it's less monetary, it's more about do we have that energy within the department or within the organization to stay with that for a period of time and bring it to fruition? So, Jonathan, to your point, yes, strategy. Risk management is something which is an RN to any large strategy that we built. But then recognizing like for example, if we are entering into hydrogen space and electrolyzers anything around sustainability, we know So big unknown, we have to get there, do it see it? Our risk appetite is different than a typical industry that we may want to enter.

Joe  30:09  

Excellent. Well, I thank you for that perspective. Because I mean, it's, it shows it's not. It's so simple for us to say sometimes like, we need to execute better with strategy. And so therefore do these things. But every time you're talking about the different levers that have to be pulled and the different people that have to be involved, it becomes complicated. So not to say that the work isn't valuable. It's just it is more complicated than maybe some people think it is. And sometimes, some people think it's so complicated, they can't actually break into it. So I guess we're looking for the happy medium, somewhere right in the middle. It's hard work, but what job a job worth doing. But with that, I know we can probably speak for hours on this topic. But all good things must come to an end. And for our podcasts, we always ask every one of our guests the same question at the end, to get their perspective. And the question we have for you is that you could speak to yourself at your the beginning of your career and strategy. What advice would you give yourself?

Alok  31:04  

I love to think about this particular question. But that's a great question. So when I started my career as a developer, as a programmer, and I never realized how my career will morph into transformations, mergers and acquisitions into strategy. If there's one advice I could give to myself, let's say 20 years ago, if I were to enter this domain, it's to have a holistic per view on how businesses run, how businesses operate. If 20 years ago, I had an idea on how to generate revenue, how to manage a sales and marketing department how to manage technology, at least, if I had some basic information at that point of time, I think I might have evolved into a completely different person with a completely different career. That's one strategy I would do is have a holistic overview in the business you work in and try to learn every aspect of that business.

Jonathan  32:03  

Great, I love it. And that's certainly a testament to your continued focus on education and getting that holistic understanding of everything. So it's great to hear a look. We appreciate your time on the show today and look forward to having more conversations in the future. It

Alok  32:17  

Was great to have a conversation with you, Jonathan, and Joe, thank you so much for having me. I truly enjoyed it. Thank you.

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