The Harvard Business Review ran a series of articles a few years ago on ‘Where Strategy Stumbles’. One in particular has stuck with me. It highlights the main reasons why companies fail in their execution stages – or why, no matter how great their strategy, their plan begins to crumble when it comes to implementation.
I found it a hugely interesting read, because businesses usually get so bogged down with developing their strategy that execution, or the WHAT, is taken for granted. As the research of Donald Sull, Rebecca Homkes, and Charles Sull, the writers of the piece, shows, three quarters of large businesses struggle with strategy implementation. Let’s have a look at why that might be.
Execution, Coordination, Alignment
According to the writers, most business executives believe that problems with execution stem from a disconnect between strategy and action. However, the article explains that improvements to execution come from better engagement and co-ordination across the whole company. Strategy predominantly comes from the business owners and upper management, however the ‘actions’ will usually impact on, and cause some degree of ‘hassle’ to, the working practices of all staff.
We have all worked in a business where we were told to do something ‘this way now, because the boss says so’. This has the opposite effect to uniting a team in the pursuit of a common goal. Employee resistance to change can derail even the most effective strategy.
When communicating, ensure you have staff engagement in WHY you are doing this. Empathise with them. Explain that you know there will be a degree of pain to be endured, but that in the long run it will make things better and that you will support them though the process.
If this is done effectively, your team will work together horizontally across departments and vertically between management and other staff to achieve the goal. Aligned by a collective knowledge of the WHY of what you are doing, with everyone supporting each other – this will lubricate that link between strategy and action.
When Planning Straitjackets Execution
We all know that planning is important – even essential. But it’s not the lack of planning, but rather a lack of agility that is the largest blockage to effective execution.
Imagine your proposed improvements are a road trip (bear with me!). You have planned each section of the route in detail – the destination, travel times, average speeds, overnight stops, fuel stops – and have drawn it on the map. Planning done! Then you set off… but there is a road closure, with a sixty-mile diversion. The detailed plan is now redundant! And yet, the reason for the trip (the WHY) is the same. The destination (WHAT) is still the same. But the journey (the HOW) might have to be tweaked along the way.
See your responsibility as communicating and discussing the WHY and WHAT with your team. Then trust your employees to execute the HOW and support them on the ‘journey’. Give them autonomy. Allow them to make course corrections along the way. The key is agility, creative problem solving, aligned with a good strategy.
Poor Communication: When staff don’t know what to execute!
The article research points out that nearly half of middle management staff cannot recall a single point of company strategy. What is going on?
The main concerns from staff were that the strategy lacked co-ordination from a company-wide perspective and, secondly, that strategy discussions themselves lacked focus.
Engage your employees in strategy discussions and ensure EVERYONE knows what the strategy is, why it is happening, and the overall goal of the changes. Break down the execution steps, clarify exactly what needs to be achieved and delegate supervision of these tasks to key members of your team. Explain when they should to report back to you and clearly define what autonomy they have to deal with issues along the way. Give them ownership of the task.
Focus on clarity when communicating the strategy, explain the ‘big picture’ of the improvements, the incremental steps, their role within the execution plan and how the resulting improvements will impact the company.
Crucially, throughout the implementation process, regularly communicate progress updates company-wide so your whole team is kept ‘in the loop’. Reflecting on progress and achievement, recognising each individuals contribution motivates the whole team, helping maintain enthusiasm and energy for the project.
If you’re aiming to improve execution, clarity and consistency are the virtues of communication – not strategy recitation!
Execution and Performance
Like many businesses, you might be hot on measuring, and rewarding, personnel performance. But the piece points out that you might do well to measure ambition, teamwork, and creativity too.
Performance metrics alone are not an effective way to foster good strategy execution. An interesting discovery from the research of Sull, Homkes, and Sull is that an over-emphasis on performance, produces conservative targets – those more easily achieved – and a less ambitious business overall. Great leaders inspire and bring out the best in their teams, enabling them to accomplish more than they thought possible. Businesses that do this are exciting places to work and their teams are energised and self-motivated.
The point here becomes one of rewarding risk-takers, promoting agile and creative thinking, and cultivating individual performance that isn’t limited to doing what you’re told. Great execution, more often than not, comes from you firstly gaining clarity on an operational issue within your business, really defining what problem you would like solved. THEN activating, empowering and rewarding your team to come up with an effective and creative solution. This breeds creative problem solving and team autonomy.
I want to finish with a great quote from Marillyn Hewson :