Strategy execution: The gap between idea and action

School marketing efforts suffer from a chronic inability to close the strategy and execution gap. But take heart, there is a clear path forward to realise your school’s mission.

As a school Head, you may have experienced the frustration of failing to successfully execute a strategic plan. Freek Vermeulen, a professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at London Business School, believes that many strategy execution processes fail because they are not actually strategies at all. A real strategy involves a clear set of choices that define what the school is going to do and what it is not going to do.

Strategies versus goals

Many so-called strategies are in fact goals. For example, “We want our marketing to make us the number one or number two school of choice in our area” is a goal, not a strategy. This statement only tells you what you hope the outcome will be, not what actions you will take to achieve it.

Other statements may represent a couple of the school’s priorities and choices, but they do not form a coherent strategy when considered in conjunction. For example, “We want to increase operational efficiency; we will target Millennial parents using digital channels.” These may be excellent decisions and priorities, but together they do not form a strategy.

Clear strategic direction

One major reason for the lack of action is that many ‘new strategies’ do not represent a set of clear choices. A clear set of choices that fit together to form a clear strategic direction for the school is necessary for a successful implementation process.

It can be useful to look at examples from beyond our own experience, so consider this example from the iconic British toy company Hornby Railways. The company was facing bankruptcy, but under the new CEO, Frank Martin, the company changed course and focused on collectors and hobbyists instead.

As a new strategy, Martin aimed (1) to make perfect scale models (rather than toys), (2) for adult collectors (rather than for children), (3) that appealed to a sense of nostalgia (because it reminded adults of their childhood). This switch was a runaway success, increasing Hornby’s share price by 615 percent over just five years. This success was due to three choices that fit together to form a clear strategic direction for the company.

Communicating choices and logic

Communicating the choices is not enough. Sly Bailey, the former CEO of UK newspaper publisher Trinity Mirror, once said, “If there is one thing I have learned about communicating choices, it is that we always focus on what the choices are. I now realise you have to spend at least as much time on explaining the logic behind the choices.”

Your marketing and communications team must understand the reasoning behind the choices to believe in them and follow up on them in their day-to-day work.

Bottom-up process

Another reason many implementation efforts fail is that leaders see it as a pure top-down, two-step process: “The strategy is made; now we implement it.” However, a successful strategy execution process is seldom a one-way trickle-down cascade of decisions.

Stanford professor Robert Burgelman believes that you need to maintain clear, top-down strategic direction, but this will only be effective if you simultaneously enable your employees to create bottom-up initiatives within the limitations set by that strategic intent.

Organic selection

To avoid bias and ensure the success of the bottom-up implementation process, school Heads should resist the urge to personally choose which projects move forward. Instead, design a system that selects projects objectively and is based on set criteria.

Make change the default

To successfully implement their marketing strategies, school Heads need to change the habits of their teams. This is a challenging process, but it can be done by taking on projects that align with the new strategy and trigger learning throughout the firm. It may mean asking the question, “Why do we do it this way?” to challenge traditional habits and find alternative solutions. Breaking bad habits and making change the default can lead to more effective strategy implementation and realisation of your school’s mission.

School marketing teams will often resist change unless it is crystal clear that the alternative is substantially better. However, as Vermeulen notes, for a successful strategy implementation process, it is useful to put the default the other way around: Change it unless it is crystal clear that the old way is substantially better. Execution involves change. Embrace it.

It is possible to successfully bridge the strategy and execution gap, avoid your current frustrations and realise your school’s mission. After all, that’s why the Board hired you.


insight applied

  • Many strategy execution processes fail because they are not actually strategies.
  • Design a system that selects projects objectively and is based on set criteria.
  • Embrace change unless it is crystal clear that the old way is substantially better.



Brad Entwistle is the Founding Partner of imageseven. Since 1990, he has led his team on a mission to amplify the impact of schools by working directly with school Heads, tailoring solutions to maximise their communication and marketing effectiveness.  

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