Successful Strategy Requires Organizations to Lean In

by Sarah Thrift on December 16, 2013

One of the things I see most with clients is the challenge of making strategy a reality. A good strategy is always needed, but without a way to implement it, there won’t be any impact.


Read more in the article below, which featured last Friday in Yahoo! Finance, Businessweek, and San Francisco Business Times amongst others.

Successful Strategy Requires Organizations to Lean In

Leadership Needs a Ruthless Focus on Execution for Strategy to Succeed

SAN FRANCISCO, Dec. 13, 2013 — Many leadership teams today fail in execution, despite spending significant time and funds on strategy formulation, according to Sarah Thrift, strategy expert and founder of San Francisco-based Insight Consultancy Solutions, Inc.

Sixty-one percent of C-suite executives say their firms struggle to bridge the gap between strategy formulation and its day-to-day implementation, according to an Economist Intelligence Unit survey published earlier this year.
Strategy expert Sarah Thrift says the focus on execution needs to become the new norm, as a way to bridge the gap.

“The most beautifully formulated and thought-through strategy is no good if you don’t make it happen. The recent execution problems with Obamacare are a case in point. Regardless of whether you agree or not with Obamacare, its strategy has been totally blighted by poor execution,” says Thrift, whose organization partners with businesses not only for this development process but to bridge the gap between strategy and execution.

When Charlie Rose asked Sheryl Sandberg what Facebook’s winning strategy was, she replied “Execution and innovation.”
Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase also opines on the importance of execution, “I’d rather have a first-rate execution and second-rate strategy any time than a brilliant idea and mediocre management.”

“Leadership teams often spend months devoted to developing their strategy. They pour over information about the trends for their industry, they consider a vast array of options so as to be able to make the best choices for their strategy – and yet all too often, it soon becomes clear that the strategy is failing not because of its content, but because of an inability to execute on it,” says Thrift.

“It’s rare to find a leadership team as passionate and obsessed about execution as they are about the formulation of the strategy. An important starting point is for the executive team to acknowledge that status quo behavior will not work. They need to align as a team and ensure their actions embody the strategy. Without this mindset and shared commitment, nothing will work,” Thrift says.

With this commitment in place, execution can begin. Execution may include the translation of the strategy into goals and milestones. Or work on communication and employee engagement, another great need Thrift and her team are regularly engaged to address.

Research commissioned by Accenture and SuccessFactors showed that 80 percent of business leaders recognize that they are not doing their best to communicate strategy throughout the organization. It is hardly surprising, albeit somewhat depressing, that author William A. Schiemann’s research cited in the book Performance Management: Putting Research into Action shows that only 14 percent of employees have a good understanding of their company’s strategy and direction.

“If the leadership team are not spending at least as much time making the strategy happen – communicating it, aligning their teams around it, syncing reward and compensation plans to it – then it’s never going to work. Successful strategy never ends with a plan. That’s just where it begins,” she says.

Sarah Thrift is available for interviews and delighted to be approached for guest articles or blogs. Please contact her at

About Sarah Thrift
Sarah Thrift is a strategist with a particular knack for problem solving, an entrepreneurial mindset and a passion for enhancing personal and business effectiveness. She founded Insight Consultancy Solutions in 2007 and loves working with organizations who have a real passion for what they do. She began her career at McKinsey & Co and subsequently worked for the UK Treasury advising Chancellor Gordon Brown on Corporate Governance issues in the wake of the Enron debacle. You can read Sarah’s insights on her blog


Have we Forgotten How to Think?

by Sarah Thrift on December 5, 2013


As I was on a 6 hour drive yesterday, I got thinking about how lucky I was to have to some time to think.

Too often, we are moving from meeting to meeting with insufficient time to think. We become fixed on doing the meeting so we can check the box to say we’ve done the meeting, rather than focusing on elevating the quality of thinking within the meeting.

Which reminds me of a quote by Thomas Edison:

“Five percent of the people think;
ten percent of the people think they think;
and the other eighty-five percent would rather die than think.”

Few people see thinking as a value. Nor does it cross their mind that they are not thinking and they could be. For example, according to research by Lisa Bloom, young American women purchase twenty times more tabloid magazines than real newspapers.

It takes time and effort to think. Bill Gates famously took two one-week “Think Weeks” a year, with family, friends and Microsoft employees banned from his retreat. The instantaneous nature of today’s technology has created a pressure to respond fast rather than take time to think first.

And when you get down to really thinking, you often have phases of uncertainty and even active confusion, going down many blind alleys before something more robust and meaningful can emerge. Many people want an immediate – albeit inferior – answer.

Which got me thinking! Against the backdrop of these impediments, what can we do to encourage thinking – in ourselves and others?

Arguably, the most important thing is a mindset oriented toward thinking, encouraging good thinking as a core value and priority. This creates the foundation for:

  1. Making good thinking a habit. Being curious about the world around us and letting the desire to read, learn and reflect grow. Putting time in our calendars specifically to think
  2. Spending time with people who think. Listening. Engaging in discussion with them. Asking them how they push their own thinking
  3. Being willing to embrace ambiguity, paradox and uncertainty. Immersing ourselves in it, enjoying the messiness of it – jumping in like a child into a puddle. And letting the thinking emerge from there

If we become better thinkers, we can also influence and inspire others to do the same. We can speak up for the importance of thinking, create safe, open and stimulating environments for thinking, and see those we work with as genuine thought partners, regardless of hierarchy.

Good thinking does not just happen. We need to start by wanting to think well and then find ways to exercise our thinking muscle. With practice, we will not only enrich our thinking, but our lives and those of others too.


Curiosity, the Key for Great Thinking

by Sarah Thrift on February 12, 2013


We only need to spend time with a toddler to see how natural curiosity is. Toddlers are continually looking, playing, asking why. A cardboard box or a ceiling fan can provide hours of fascination.

As we move into our teenage and adult years, this curiosity often wanes. Our orientation moves towards success. We focus on school grades or progressing in our career. We adopt a laser-like focus and exclude anything which does not quickly and at a surface level serve our goal.

This focus may take us to our immediate goal, but it also limits curiosity. Which also means that we miss the richness which could propel us to even greater possibilities, fulfillment and success.

Curious people love to learn new things about a whole range of topics. It makes us self-starters, the kids who take apart toys to see how they work. The thirst for knowledge is unquenchable. Learning is continuous, regardless of age or expertise.

When Bill Clinton lost a race for Governor of Arkansas in 1980, he read over 300 books as part of a revamp for a second run. Compare that to the general population: 58% of the US adult population never reads another book after high school and 42% of college graduates never read another book.

Curious minds ask questions and don’t just accept things at face value. To be satisfied, we need to know more. We want to see things as they really are, peeling back layers to see beyond what something purports to be on the surface. We can see why Rudyard Kipling said: “I keep six honest serving men, they taught me all I knew; their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.”

When we are curious, it is natural to be playful, full of childlike fascination and wonder. Being truly curious can also engender humility: we are unafraid to ask questions or to reveal something we don’t know. Nor is change an enemy. Trying new things and finding alternative solutions is part of the excitement and learning of life. Einstein often credited his own success not to “special talent” but to being “passionately curious” “When searching for a needle in a haystack, most people quit when they find the needle. I look for what other needles there might be in the haystack”.

Being curious makes life more interesting. It helps us to see new perspectives and it sparks new ideas. It makes our minds active, alert and engaged. It becomes a driving force taking us to greater success. And by knowing and understanding more, we have a greater opportunity to influence our lives. Eleanor Roosevelt said that if she could ask a fairy godmother to endow a child with “the most useful gift, that gift would be curiosity”.

Our happiness is also strongly influenced by our level of curiosity. According to a Gallup survey of more than 130,000 people from more than 130 nations, the two factors that had the most influence on how much enjoyment a person experienced in a given day were “being able to count on someone for help” and “learned something yesterday.” Simply put, being curious is good for us.

If your own curiosity has waned or you are curious but want to be more so, here are some things you can do:

  1. Be curious about your own level of curiosity: are you still interested in learning new things? When was the last time you sought knowledge simply for the pursuit of truth? What happened as a result of this? When were times when you were really curious? Were you curious about particular things or was this more a state of mind?
  2. Spend time with curious people – adults or children: Who do you know who is curious? Do you have children or can spend time with small children who are naturally curious? What is it curious people/ children do? Is this something you could do or would want to do?
  3. Read widely: To quote Charlie Munger, Vice Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway: “I have known no wise people who didn’t read all the time — none, zero.” This is not just about becoming an expert in your areas of interest, but learning more about all sorts and looking to relate two domains that may not seem connected at first. Bill Gates is known every so often to pick up a copy of Time magazine and read every article from beginning to end and not just the articles that interest him the most. “That way you can be certain to learn something you didn’t know previously.”
  4. Ask questions: Asking questions motivates you to go beyond the surface. You learn more because you have a desire to know more. What questions do you ask? Are there questions that engage you on a daily basis? Can you list right now 100 questions in a ‘whatever comes to mind’ fashion? Are there patterns in the topics of the questions? Remind yourself of Einstein: “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”
  5. Stay open – are you curious or are you really looking for certainty? Are you ready to be amazed? When you are open to the nuances of life, it’s easy to find things that fascinate you and to begin wondering “why?” and “how?”

Curious begets curiosity. The more curious you are, the more possibilities will open up to you. Take this as an invitation to be insatiably curious. Or as Alice in Wonderland put it “curiouser and curiouser”.