Characterizing the Gap Between Strategy and Implementation

The last century has witnessed a rapid increase in global population, mobility, urbanization, and commerce. What should be our response to this age of connected complexity as practitioners, thought leaders, and researchers? These times push us beyond our traditions to consider heretofore unreachable objectives.

Download Books

A book by Brightline Initiative and MITsdm. Edited by Dr Bryan Moser.


The last century has witnessed a rapid increase in global population, mobility, urbanization, and commerce. These changes have been fueled by natural and human engineered ecosystems which are increasingly connected, large, and impactful. As billions of people have been lifted from poverty with access to services, liberties and education, new challenges emerge and risks confront us.

Organizations both public and private – in response to this remarkable period of complexity – struggle with established notions of organizational development, culture, and performance. What is our mission? What should we do? Should we? Can we? With whom? For whom? Our established frames – identity, roles, capabilities, and intuitions, even our way of seeing the world – may fail us.

What should be our response to this age of connected complexity as practitioners, thought leaders, and researchers? These times push us beyond our traditions to consider heretofore unreachable objectives. Yet even as targets increase, so do the uncertainties of their achievability. Across our networked world, now how should one share value, work, and risk? The connectedness that enables new achievements simultaneously introduces difficulty. What is our response? Put simply, we must build capabilities to bridge an increasing gap between strategy and implementation.

In the spring of 2018 a diverse group of researchers, practitioners, and students gathered for a two-day symposium titled “Characterizing the Gap between Strategy and Implementation.” This book captures the results of this event.

A Call for Dialogue

A symposium was held on the MIT campus on April 30 and May 1, 2018. Researchers and practitioners submitted original work characterizing the gap between strategy and implementation, including theory, applied research, and cases. As an exploratory initial symposium, emphasis was placed on new research frameworks and crosscutting themes. The participants were asked to demonstrate open mindedness through the two days, given the diverse set of backgrounds from both multi-disciplinary academic and professional experience.
The event was hosted by the MIT System Design and Management (SDM) and sponsored by The Brightline™ Initiative. SDM is a joint program of the MIT School of Engineering and Sloan School of Management. For more than 20 years, SDM has been a leader in innovative education and research which integrate management strategy and engineering implementation. The Brightline™ Initiative is a Project Management Institute (PMI) initiative together with leading global organizations dedicated to helping executives bridge the expensive and unproductive gap between strategy design and delivery.

Topics of Interest

In the spirit of a working research symposium, papers, posters, panel discussions, and workshops on the following topics were prepared:

  • Research-based investigation into factors which drive separation or promote integration between strategy and implementation functions in organizations
  • Models-based approaches of strategy for implementation teams
  • Models-based approaches of implementation for strategy teams
  • Case studies of high-performance teamwork that spans strategy and implementation
  • The epistemology, ontology and semantics of strategy, with an emphasis on setting and cascading of targets so as to guide implementation activity.
  • Simulation methods for cascading leadership team choices, organizational constraints and strategic directives across units to managers and employees.

The Motivation

Strategy has been well studied, ranging across perspectives including visions of future and goal-setting, competitive differentiation, process excellence, and core competencies. At the same time, many have explored performance during implementation, from project management and teamwork to learning and operational efficiency. Yet evidence and experience suggest that the strategic success of professional practices remains disparate. The gap between strategy and implementation function of firms remains large. This event brought together practitioners and researchers in an intentionally diverse – and even awkward – mix.

Thus, we chose to focus this first symposium on characterizing the gap between strategy and implementation. Over two days the event combined 3 keynotes, 2 panels, 20 presentations, 14 posters, and 3 workshops. More than 150 participants, well balanced across industrial and academic backgrounds, many of whom had not met before.

Insights & Unanswered Questions

Across formal papers, some included in this book, panels, workshops, and countless conversations before and during the symposium, some insights emerged and unanswered questions highlighted.
Many of our colleagues called for common vocabulary and formal ontology to anchor our explorations. Model-based frameworks might allow integrated simulation of strategy and implementation. Field studies and experiments which treat phenomena most typical in studies of strategy could simultaneously consider project, resource, and behaviors typically treated in studies of implementation.

It was recognized that stronger social science experimental methods will be required prior to claims often witnessed in survey-based management publications. More broadly, model-based and experiment-based academic work might go beyond broad frameworks to emphasize measurable and reproducible treatment of the underlying phenomena of teams working on strategy and implementation in firms. Various means to instrument activity on the bridge between strategy and implementation functions of firms were discussed.

Ultimately, the participants envisioned co-creation of strategy and implementation to match the context, stakeholders, demands, and capabilities of a given situation. They wondered if it might be possible to detect healthy patterns of behavior in teams of teams working on the strategy-implementation boundary. Still, doubts were raised about tightly controlled toy problems – reduced so as to allow measurement –oft repeated; where their mathematical significance might be claimed, the underlying representations so weak as to demonstrate simply that the experiment itself was studied, rather than the reality intended.

After a fascinating and motivating few days of diverse voices, both theoretic and experienced, the group adjourned with humility and caution, to pursue concrete means to characterize the strategy-implementation gap. The chapters of this book are a record of some of these discussions, and we hope a guide before our next gathering.

Bryan R. Moser
Academic Director, MIT System Design & Management
Cambridge, Massachusetts USA
April 2019

Published on 14 November 2019, by Brightline Initiative