In today’s fast paced, ever changing market, it is important for organisations to have a well thought-out and executed strategy. While many have become adept at strategy formation, most will get lost in the complex nature of effective execution. Too often, leaders take the time to develop strategic plans, but fail to provide a structure and the adequate processes that allow for effective implementation. This shouldn’t be a surprise, as Forbes magazine dryly notes, MBA degrees teach 95% strategy and 5% execution.
I have read a lot on this subject, talked to a few people, and recently studied it. I wonder why few people seemingly understand execution, and whether they make plans to truly connect with an organisations strategy. Many think it is about getting things done; running the company; delivering BAU; beating competitors. Themes from the many books on the subjects seem to me to be much the same- be more efficient; focus on the detail; get the technology right; get a great change manager; prioritise.
Execution is much more than this.
Much of the difficulty associated understanding and delivering strategy execution comes from the complex nature of the process. It is (and should be) seriously hard, which perhaps explains why there are more case studies on strategy, and seemingly not so many on execution.
Some of the get rights include:
Comprehending that strategic execution, like strategy, is dynamic because a long list of factors (internal and external) can and do change from year-to-year. This means a highly adaptable organisation with highly adaptable leaders are required. Whether the previous strategy execution was successful last year or not, it is rarely the same year after year, and there are so many aspects to get right.
Of course, organisation alignment is incredibly important from the Board to the mailroom. Too often a presentation from the leadership team, measured by a Gallup or Kenexa, could be seen as proof that an organisation is aligned. But it is much more complex than that and it needs to be thought through at all levels. It is important to understand that an execution of a strategy could impact different departments at different times, using different resources. Also, remember this will change every year, and will impact individual’s day jobs.
I tend to agree with research which suggests organisation alignment (or not) could be linked with the size of to do lists. A classic mistake, which means everyone works hard with good intentions- but it is like treading water, nothing really gets delivered and stagnation sets in. So, the answer is simple, focus on a few, super key, widely important activities. Don’t get distracted and make sure you have strong strategic governance.
Performance measurements and incentives must be aligned to the execution of the strategy. This is so important as incentives (as discussed previously) if used correctly are an incredibly powerful tool to get alignment and to drive execution. If everyone is chasing different performance measurements, again nothing may get done. Surely, its simple a new strategy, needs new performance metrics and incentives (or at least review them).
Great leadership is another critical factor in the success of an organisation and naturally this applies to execution. To quote
“While some leaders may have good leadership experience, during the strategy execution process, it is important that the leader be a good fit for the organization, understands the culture, and is able to react appropriately to the dynamics in the marketplace.” (Patton 2015: pg.290).
The leadership also needs to foster a culture where employees are encouraged to be leaders and empowered to make decisions at all levels relating to execution. Not only should employees be focused on achievement and be held accountable for organisational objectives, they should also be given the latitude to make decisions that will help to achieve those organisational objectives. Surely, a new leadership and cultural plan should underpin a new strategic direction?
Finally, the way an organisation views itself internally is critical. An organisation is like a system, it grows; it shrinks; it has emotions; it is incredibly interconnected; and perhaps not connected. Too often strategic execution does not take a system view, it doesn’t understand the connections or the emotions.
You can tell when this is not quite right- just look for a high level of organisational politics and emotions. A touchy subject in any organisation politics and emotion has the power to refocus a well thought out strategy and indeed completely derail its direction. Again, execution plans do not really take this into account and it truly must be the hidden barrier of execution.
When the strategy fails, the leadership blames the environment, the consultant hired to develop the strategy, the previous CEO, or competitors (..and the rest!). This might be true on occasion, but is more often a failure to lead the execution. Ultimately, execution should be thought of as a discipline, with discipline. It is fundamental to strategy and shapes its very delivery. No worthwhile strategy can be planned without considering an organisation’s ability to deliver it.
Larry Bossidy (2002), Execution the discipline of getting things done, Random House
Chris McChesney and Sean Covey (2012), The Four Disciplines of Execution, Simon and Schuster
Lynne Patton (2015), The continued struggle with strategy execution, International Journal of Business Management and Economic Research, Vol (6)5, 2015