Business strategy execution – acting on what really matters

Lack of business strategy execution is much more damaging to a CEO’s career than lack of strategic insight. Despite its significance, strategy execution is managed badly in many companies.

Why is business strategy execution so tough?

People talk about it as “getting things done” – but not many managers really know “how” to do it. Strategy can’t be left to chance. No strategy delivers results until it’s transformed into deliberate actions. This is a disciplined process that helps companies to take a well-crafted strategy and make it work.

A crucial program had gone off the rails. After a tense review meeting, I met the Marketing VP in his office. His company was a key technology supplier to mine. Regaining his composure he said “You would imagine with our collective wit, skill and enthusiasm, we could sit down – just once – and get this damn stuff right! It’s not rocket science, is it?”

The “damn stuff” he was talking about was everything that companies need to do to execute a program successfully.

By business strategy execution, I mean an organised and structured approach to taking a strategy and making it work.

In many businesses, little has changed over the last 30 years. Over 70% of new initiatives fail – some would say the number is higher.

There is a chasm between what is said and what actually happens – too much talk and not enough action. Hollow promises of sharper strategy execution and new executive talent appear in the financial news with tedious regularity – as if it were the latest breakthrough in management thinking.

New initiatives fail because execution is extremely difficult and managers use flawed approaches to follow through. The obstacles to success are formidable.

If business strategy execution is so critical to success, why don’t more companies take a disciplined approach to it? After all, discipline is the bridge between strategy and results.

Why do many businesses put so much effort into crafting the “perfect” strategy and then screw it up with a slapdash approach to business strategy execution. The cost of the problem is staggering.

To understand why business strategy execution is so tough, we need to understand a key feature of the strategy task.

Strategy planning is normally carried out by a handful of people over a short period – sometimes just a few weeks. By contrast, execution of the strategy is played out over a longer period, usually involving hundreds of people.

Countless strategies are designed without taking into account the organisations ability to execute it. Strategy tends to be restricted to a few senior managers and is not widely shared.

Classically, it is too abstract and too shallow. As a result, it’s poorly understood by the people who have to implement it. Less than 40% of staff believe they are well informed about their company’s strategy.

A basic problem with business strategy execution is that managers know more about planning than doing.

Managers are trained to plan, not to execute plans. More often than not, there is a separation between planning and doing which can be problematic. Managers behave as if doing requires less intelligence than planning.

It’s common to hear the doers described as “the grunts” – people who are less intellectually gifted than the planners. Strategy plans are “thrown over the wall” to the doers (in some cases by a PowerPoint presentation) so that planners can get on with more exciting stuff.

This demeans the execution process in a way that is corrosive for the entire business. If things end up wide of the mark the doers are blamed. The unspoken message is clear – “doing” is not a noble pursuit.

What’s more, companies focus on too many things simultaneously. No company can concentrate on more than three or four critical issues at one time. Attempting to focus on more is a widespread problem. Any manager who says he has ten priorities to juggle with has lost sight of what the important issues are.

The simpler the view of what you have to do, the more focus you will have.

The best performers in any field are those who see what they do as simple in nature – but difficult at the same time.

Take a marathon, for example. The runner starts and doesn’t stop until he has completed 26.2miles. It’s simple – but it’s not easy.

Some companies execute strategy well. In most cases, this is because they have a small band of “go-to” people running the more difficult execution tasks. These are talented generalists who are habitually moved from pressure point to pressure point by senior management.

They have a wider perspective on business issues than most and compensate for lack of process through sheer personal style.

It’s only when they move to the next challenge that we notice a worsening team performance, indicating that there is no sustainable execution process in the company.

Business strategy execution failure is not a single shattering event. It doesn’t happen overnight.

Just because nothing bad happens in week two or month two of a program, doesn’t mean that disaster is not on its way.

Business strategy execution failure is a few errors in judgement, repeated every day – eventually leading to an execution debacle.

Of course, one thing that guarantees poor execution is a bad strategy. But what happens when the strategy is good? What are the main cornerstones of successful execution? Does it require great intelligence or technical ability?

Execution success comes from the simple discipline of doing ordinary things exceptionally well.

The problem is that these simple disciplines are easy not to do. Time after time, this is the root cause of the mess we see in execution.

Four basic disciplines create a solid platform for execution success

These are:

  • Clear direction on the relevant business issue
  • The right people in the right place
  • Rational plans
  • Effective Controls

 

Clarity on the business issue

Being precise on the critical issue is vital to success. This clarifies expectations and eliminates the vagueness that people get away with in everyday conversation. Objectives and outcomes need to be succinct and written down unambiguously. People involved in the execution process should not be required to read between the lines.

But how often do we see this?

Frequently, a company announcement on a vital program is couched in long and flabby nouns of generalised meaning. The language is congealed instantly revealing a ponderous mind at work.

We don’t want to go anywhere with a mind that expresses itself in such arcane, jargon-studded language. We don’t feel inclined to read it. The author doesn’t sound like a person we want to call. In fact, he doesn’t even sound like a person.

Much of the “writing” done by executives is done by delegation. They think the quickest way of getting something “written” is to ask another manager to prepare a note which is then never seen by the executive.

This is false economy – they save a few hours and blow their whole personality. “Delegated” sentences tend to be pretentious and sloppy. Executives should find time to make sure that what finally goes out in their name is a true reflection of who they are.

Plain talk is not easily achieved. Managers at every level are prisoners of a false notion that a simple style reflects a simple mind. Actually, a simple style is the result of hard work and hard thinking. A muddled style reflects a muddled thinker – too arrogant or too lazy to organise his thoughts.

It takes effort to be concise.

Clear expectations and specific outcomes – written plainly and simply – are the first critical step in creating a successful execution plan.

The right people in the right place

There are so many things that a company can’t control, from the economy to the competition. But you would think they would pay more attention to the one thing they can control – the quality of people in the execution and leadership teams.

This is the most important discipline but it’s taken for granted in many companies.

It all starts with the leadership. Who will lead the execution task on a critical business issue? Someone who is available? Someone the CEO feels comfortable with rather than someone who has better skills for the job.

Leaders don’t usually think very hard about choosing the right people for the right jobs. They usually don’t have accurate views about what some of the key execution jobs involve – and what kind of people they need.

As a result, leaders end up with pedestrian managers leading vital teams – managers with “ready-aim-aim-aim-aim syndrome” who struggle to make the right decisions.

Every key execution job should be defined in terms of three or four mandatory requirements – things the person must be able to do to succeed.

Knowing business strategy execution hazards is necessary – but not sufficient. The team manager has to know what to do – explicitly.

If you want a team to perform well, you need to match people to each task. Without question, the most suitable person to sing the tenor part in an opera is the tenor.

No one would think about asking a baritone to tackle the tenor part. He would be unsuitable and wouldn’t produce the authentic vocal effect imagined by the composer.

This is common sense? Yes, it is sense – but not that common.

Execution teams need diverse skills. Managers who make sure that they have a good match between their people and goals – before they take action – double the chances of successful follow through.

Rational Plans

Milestones bring a strategy to life. Yet it’s still surprising how many major “plans” are described in a few hazy paragraphs, accompanied by a worthless Bar Chart.

You wouldn’t accept a quote from a builder that said “House – 12 months, £500,000” would you? You would need a lot more information.

With such a low level of detail, it’s unlikely the builder would even understand it himself. But if the builder could provide a weekly breakdown of key activities, everyone would have a clearer understanding of what needs to be done and by when. Questions can then be asked and assumptions tested.

Milestone plans are important, especially where the program is large and complex. A schedule of key activities is crucial. A time has to be agreed for specific things to happen, otherwise they won’t.

Everyone should see how their efforts fit into the whole and invest time in integrating their pieces of work with the others. Until you have that, it’s impossible to see the connections and dependencies across the business.

It’s only when details are written down – with peoples’ names next to them that estimates and assumptions can be scrutinised. It’s easier to remember something that’s in the public domain, constantly reminding you of what needs to be done.

Creating a plan breaks things down into manageable chunks – but also acts as a “forcing” function. It naturally drives a change in perspective and behaviour.

Schedules force everyone to think through what they need to do – and how their work fits in with others. This is a critical part of making things happen.

While planning schedules can’t protect you from bad strategies, bad leadership, unclear goals and bad communication, they do provide an indispensable road map for the business strategy execution process.

Effective Controls

The failure to follow through is widespread in business and a major cause of poor execution. You must have meaningful controls and a dynamic review process. An execution culture relies on robust debate. This means a climate where there is a frank and open exchange.

We have all been in meaningless meetings where the boss wants harmony. There is no intensity in the review process.

Progress is reported in PowerPoint. Everything is warm and vague – too much syrup and not enough citrus in the conversation. People struggle to stay awake. Questions are discouraged.

Issues are fudged by silent lies, misleading comments and flagrant untruths. No one is willing to say the emperor has no clothes.

The meeting is a charade.

People soon lose confidence and wish they could be elsewhere. This stifles critical thinking and drives decision making underground.

Realism is at the heart of business strategy execution. Organisations are full of people who want to avoid reality. Reality makes them feel uncomfortable. The mantra is “we don’t want to look bad” or “we want to look better than they do”. What is needed is a “what are you going to do about it” attitude and much more intensity in the review process.

No matter what we do, or how hard we work, things will go wrong. The best teams with the best leaders and workers will still find themselves in difficult and unplanned situations.

Executives must be prepared to deal with difficult situations. Bad things happen and nothing can be done to change that.

What matters most is how executives deal with a “crisis”.

Just because someone thinks the sky has fallen doesn’t mean it has. The first thing to do is to establish the brutal facts – to ask tons of questions. And there is a skill in asking these questions.

But you have to be intent on getting the plain unvarnished truth. At first, it might be disconcerting to hear the gritty details but it does provide the starting point for a solution.

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Years ago, I was inspired by questions posed in Rudyard Kipling’s “Just So” story.

They’re a useful guide for conducting reviews.

I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who?

Where there are problems, ask the questions underlined. Listen intently for the answers and, I promise, you’ll be astonished at what you learn.

What, when, how, where and who – are very powerful questions. They force people to be specific – to reveal what they actually know for a “fact”. It’s easy to separate real knowledge from wishful thinking.

Notice the question “why” is not underlined. Sometimes “why” can be a useful question but it does not have anything like the same power as the other questions.

It lacks precision and should be used sparingly.

“Why” encourages people to rationalise (and fantasise) things – in hindsight – and to play down the seriousness of situations because they don’t want to look bad.

Explanations from a “why” question are of little use and will always distract you from the main issues.

Leaders have to create a climate where there are no non-discussables – and where dissent is legitimate. People can’t be expected to be open, if they are fearful. If leaders are open and constructive, focused on helping teams to solve problems, others will take the hint and the execution process will benefit.

Business strategy execution is not rocket science. But it is a neglected management discipline.

Business management education reveres planning but execution skills have to be learned on the job.

The cornerstones of execution are simple – but not easy. Managers can get away with ignoring the disciplines for weeks or months without any obvious sign of problems.

The disciplines are easy not to do – but if this normal practice, disaster is never far away.

Strategy execution is doomed to failure unless teams have the process, skills and talent to implement the strategies.

Management literature admires companies who are regarded as good “examples” of execution –  so-called models of excellence. Equally, there are companies who serve as “warnings” – these are behaviours to avoid.

Experts encourage us to be like the “examples” and not like the “warnings”

When a book is written about your company, make sure your business stands out because it’s an example – and not a warning.

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The technology supplier I mentioned at the start of this article?

Well, they never did sit down – just once – to get the damn stuff right. It was just so easy “not to do.”

They paid the ultimate price. The failure to execute successfully signalled the demise of the company – and a multi-million-pound program ended up on the scrapheap.

 

If you want to know more about strategy execution, download Mentor’s eBook “It’s Deja Vu all over again”. It discusses how management blindspots come about and suggests ways in which they can be completely sidestepped.

 

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