Crossing the chasm: Lessons from Steve Jobs on Successful Business Transformation

Learning from a master practitioner in programme execution

Steve Jobs famously once said: “To me, ideas are worth nothing unless executed. They are just a multiplier. Execution is worth millions.”

This quote by Apple’s late co-founder highlights the importance of execution in business. Jobs was a visionary who understood that having an idea was just the first step in a long journey to success. The real value came from executing that idea and bringing it to life.

In this article, Mentor CEO David Hilliard argues that we can learn much from Jobs’ thinking in crossing the chasm that exists between ideas and the successful execution of business transformation programs.

Execution – where the rubber meets the road

Research the term “crossing the chasm”, and you’ll almost certainly come across Geoffrey Moore’s famous work on how to move early adopters of new technology to become mass market consumers.

Steve Jobs identified an equally important chasm that is rarely crossed…between ideas and their successful execution.

According to Jobs, an idea by itself is just potential, a promise of what could be. He knew that execution is where the rubber meets the road. It’s where a company transforms its vision into reality – the critical step that turns an idea into a successful business.

Jobs’ ability to bring his ideas to life is one of the reasons why Apple is such a successful company today.

And whilst his attention was on creating game-changing products, his relentless focus on execution applies equally to transforming how businesses operate for future success.

I’d go even further. If there was just one thing I’ve learned from my thirty-odd years of “rescuing” business-critical transformation programs, it’s this:

It’s not just ideas that are worth nothing without successful execution. The best, well-thought-through strategy is worthless without effective execution.

In most cases, the chasm between strategy and execution is rarely successfully crossed, which according to research by McKinsey, explains why two-third of business-critical programs go into a tailspin.

Strategy is sexy. Execution isn’t

Strategy execution is not well managed in many companies. Yet, poor execution is much more damaging to a senior executive’s career than a lack of strategic insight.

Plans for execution at the strategic stage tends to be a bit threadbare on a few PowerPoint charts with not enough detail.

We rarely see a board of directors say, “right, now show me how you’re going to deliver this program. Prove we have the capabilities to justify those dates and that you can deliver it while still making our financial commitment this year.”

Execution is about getting things done. But the low number of successes suggests it’s much easier to talk about it than to actually ‘do’ it.

Strategy can’t be left to chance. No strategy can deliver results until it’s converted into intentional actions.

Yet, strategy is where the action is.

Executives feel comfortable with strategy – they’ll crawl all over it and think nothing of paying considerable sums to external consultancies to advise them.

On the other hand, how to execute transformation programs rarely gets a look-in at Board level. Executive board members have little experience or inclination to get their hands dirty with execution.

Jobs was one of the exceptions. He took pride in being a master of execution. He knew that execution required specific expertise and focus from the typical “day-to-day” business as usual.

“The people doing the work are the moving force behind the Macintosh. My job is to create a space for them, to clear out the rest of the organisation and keep it at bay.”

Why do many plans not deliver what they promise?

In most organisations, how often do we find a disconnect between what is said and what happens? Initiatives fail because managers use flawed approaches to follow through – if they follow through at all.

But, let’s face it, execution is complex. The barriers to success can be formidable.

To understand why execution is tough, we must grasp a vital feature of the strategy task.

Strategy planning is usually carried out by a handful of people over a short period – sometimes just a few weeks.

By contrast, the execution of the strategy is played out over a much more extended period, usually involving hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people.

Moreover, the strategy task tends to be restricted to a few senior managers. And it’s not widely shared.

Countless strategies are designed without gauging the organisation’s ability to execute them or consulting with those tasked to deliver them.

Classically, the strategy is too abstract and too shallow. As a result, it’s not well understood by the people who have to implement it.

Senior managers typically have a clear and singular vision of what constitutes success. Yet, this narrow focus can lead them to overlook important details and only focus on information that supports their objectives – often referred to as “optimism bias”.

Those doing the work have a much more practical view of the complexities involved, which as a rule, clashes with senior management’s over-optimistic objectives and timescales.

This “clash of perspectives” needs addressing at the outset.  The clash is always much harder to deal with the longer the program runs.

Companies and Managers try to do too many things at once

In many organisations, there is a separation between ‘planning’ and ‘doing’ – which is a huge problem.

This behaviour is corrosive to the entire business. Compounding the problem, companies focus on too many things.

In truth, companies can only concentrate on up to three or four critical issues at any one time.

Attempting to focus on more is a widespread problem.

Any manager who says he has ten priorities to juggle has lost sight of the critical issues.

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

Again, Steve Jobs nails this perfectly:

“That’s been one of my mantras – focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

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 disaster is not on its way.

The seeds of disaster are a few errors in judgement, repeated every day, that eventually lead to an execution debacle.

Also explore why business transformation programs fail.

What are the main cornerstones of successful execution?

Execution success comes from doing ordinary things exceptionally well.

Five core disciplines create a solid platform for execution success:

1. Be clear on the objectives and outcomes

Being precise on critical issues 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.

Don’t mistake a simple style for a simple mind. A simple style is the result of hard work and hard thinking. It takes real effort to be concise.

Written plainly and simply, clear expectations and specific outcomes are the first critical step in creating a successful execution plan and bringing the entire team with you on the same journey.

2. The right people in the right place

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

Every critical execution job should be defined in terms of three or four mandatory requirements – things the person must be able to do to succeed. Knowing what execution hazards are is incredibly important, but it’s not enough.

If you want a team that performs well, you must match people to each task. Execution teams need diverse skills.

Program Managers should ensure they have a good match between their people and goals – before they take action. This doubles the chances of successful follow-through.

3. Rational Plans

Milestones bring a strategy to life. Yet it’s still surprising how many major ‘plans’ are described in a few obscure paragraphs.

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

Creating plans breaks things down into manageable chunks and acts as a ‘forcing function.’

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

Plans can’t protect you from bad strategies, bad leadership, unclear goals and poor communication, but they provide a crucial road map for execution success.

Also find out leadership traits preventing business transformation success.

4. Effective Organisation and Controls

Failure to follow through is widespread in business and a significant cause of poor execution. You must have meaningful controls via an established governance structure and a dynamic review process.

Successful execution places dependencies on other people to carry out what they are required to do in an agreed timescale. This needs a robust process for reporting and managing, with escalations for late delivery.

The complex nature and scale of business transformation programs relies on external suppliers to play their part in an integrated delivery team. And not be treated as outsiders. This must be factored into the governance.

An execution culture relies on robust debate. This means a climate where there is a frank and open exchange. People doing the work need to have a voice. They are best placed to spot warning signs and advise on consequences and fixes. We have all been in meaningless meetings with no intensity in the review process.

Realism is at the heart of execution. Organisations are full of people who want to avoid reality. Reality makes them feel uncomfortable.

5. Executives must be prepared to deal with difficult situations.

What matters most is how executives deal with a ‘crisis’. The first thing to do is to establish the brutal facts – to ask tons of questions. And there’s a skill in asking these questions. But you have to be intent on getting the plain, unvarnished truth.

‘What’, ‘when’, ‘how’, ‘where’ and ‘who’ are very powerful questions. They force people to be specific, revealing what they know as a ‘fact’. It’s then easy to separate actual knowledge from wishful thinking.

‘Why’ lacks precision and should be used sparingly. It can be a good question but encourages people to rationalise things in hindsight and to play down the seriousness of situations.

Execution is not rocket science, but it is a neglected management discipline.

Business management education reveres strategic planning – but execution skills must be learned on the job.

Strategy execution is prone to collapse unless teams have the experience, process, and talent to implement the strategies.

Management literature admires companies like Apple and leaders like Steve Jobs, who are considered suitable ‘examples’ of execution – so-called models of excellence.

Equally, there are companies like Blockbuster, Toys “R” Us and Compaq who serve as ‘warnings’ – they all displayed behaviours to avoid.

Unfortunately, there are far more businesses that serve as “warnings” rather than “models of excellence.”

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

Or better still, email me, and I’ll happily share my thoughts on being an “example”.

About the author

David Hilliard is the Chief Executive Officer of Mentor Europe – Business-Critical program execution experts.