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Robert Simons is the Charles M Williams Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. This article is adapted from his book Seven Strategy Questions: A Simple Approach for Better Execution (Harvard Business Review Press, 2010)

An economic downturn can quickly expose the shortcomings of your business strategy. But you can identify its weak points in good times as well? And can you focus on those weak points that really matter?

A stress-test - an assessment of how a system functions under severe or unexpected pressure - can help you home in on the most important issues to address, whatever the economic climate. By asking tough questions about your business, you can identify confusion, inefficiency, and weaknesses in your strategy and its implementation.

Who is a "Customer"? Don't use the word "customer" to refer to anyone inside the organisation. Internal people are never a company's primary customers, and treating them as such may cause you to lose sight of your true focus.

As Peter Drucker once warned, "The most serious mistakes are not being made as a result of wrong answers. The truly dangerous thing is asking the wrong questions." For the past 25 years I have researched the drivers of successful strategy execution in a variety of companies and industries. Through this work I have identified seven questions that all executives should ask - and be able to answer. Master this list, and you will keep the fundamentals of your strategy execution on track. The questions may seem obvious, but the choices they represent can be tough, and their full implications are not always immediately clear. The first two questions compel you to set strict priorities. The next two assess you ability to focus on those proprieties by designating critical performance variables and constraints. Questions five and six investigate whether you are using techniques that will enhance creative tensions and commitment. The final question deals with your ability to adapt your strategy over time.

Let's take a look at each question, so that you can see how you - and your strategy -measure up.

  1. Who is your primary customer?
  2. How do your core values prioritise shareholders, employees, and customers?
  3. What critical performance variables are you tracking?
  4. What strategic boundaries have you set?
  5. How are you generating creative tension?
  6. How committed are your employees to helping each other?
  7. What strategic uncertainties keep you awake at night?

Ask the Whole Team. The seven questions are intended to be tools for stimulating engagement. Everyone in your business, from the CEO to the front line, must be actively involved in discussions about the key factors that will enable the successful execution of your strategy. Therefore, how you ask the questions is crucial. These commonsense principles will help you involve your whole team.

You must pose the questions face-to-face. "Look me in the eye" interaction is essential. You cannot get real engagement remotely or by e-mail. You must be able to see the subtle body language that can tell you when to challenge, probe, and push and when to offer encouragement and support.

Discussions must cascade down the organisation, not stay stuck at the top. The tone you set will echo throughout the business.

1. Who if Your Primary Customer?

Choosing a primary customer is a make-or-break decision. Why? Because it should determine how you allocate resources. The idea is simple: Allocate all possible resources to meet and exceed your primary customer's needs.

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