Top ten mega execution mistakes that businesses make

It’s hard not to exaggerate how important it is to know the biggest, most often made, execution mistakes that OTHER businesses make.

Just by knowing them…and avoiding them…you can make a huge difference to the success of your transformation agenda.

Don’t feel bad if you identify with some of these. We’ve made every one of them ourselves at some time during our careers. And we’ve seen even more.


Mistake #1. Lack of Executive Alignment

Think about driving your car when the front wheels aren’t aligned – a pretty uncomfortable experience. Or about a time you visited a chiropractor because you had an alignment problem with your back. People don’t function well with back problems, do they?

And so it is with senior management teams. If one or more executives don’t share the vision, initiatives quickly hit choppy waters. Differences between team members of the team will be exploited by dark forces in the business – the “statusquoaholics.”

Many reasons are cited for previous failures, like poor program management, ambiguity over accountabilities, ill-defined governance, and so on. There’s so much garbage talked about it. But while some of these are true, lack of alignment in the senior management team is actually the major cause of program failure. Chinks in the team always have logarithmic financial effects downstream.

The more the executive team shares a common view of the change, the greater the chance of success. All executives must have shared accountability for it – reflected in personal compensation plans; they must visibly commit their organisations to deliver the change.


Mistake #2. Lack of Laser-Like Focus

You can call this “a blinding flash of the obvious” if you like, but how can we explain why so many businesses operate as if they were ignorant of this logic.

Companies setting out to run a cocktail of business-critical programs are probably only capable of delivering one or two. Blurred “focus” is a rampant problem. Executive teams always struggle to narrow their focus; they have too many competing priorities which confuses the workforce.

This is a bad business decision, pure and simple.

When it comes to large program portfolios, the law of diminishing returns is as real as the law of gravity. Focus is about directing more energy into fewer programs. With focus, it’s 10 times easier to get the results you want.


Mistake #3. Heroic Guesses

How many of you get sucked into the “Heroic Guesses” trap? Lots of businesses do. Program Strategy is always driven by a top-level financial benefits case. Well, where else would you start?

But what most businesses easily forget is the execution strategy is always predicated on assumptions that hover between “wild” and educated guesses.

That’s why business-critical program portfolio strategies tend to be naïve and unrealistic – at least initially. They take for granted a company will achieve standards of delivery brilliance never achieved before.

Schedules are based on nothing going wrong – which is absurd. And when it does, not only has the business got no surge capacity to handle the crisis, it is completely unprepared for the financial shock that has been hiding in plain sight.


Mistake #4. Ineffective Program Organisations

What is the easiest way to organise for a business-critical program? Simple. Don’t make any changes to the existing functional structure. But “Ineffective Program Organisations” build failure into a program from the start.

This is a mega execution mistake.

Programs fall into two classes – regular and complex; there’s little in between. Complex programs tend to be “business-critical” because the future of the business depends on them. But crucial organisation design questions are regularly overlooked – or messed up in some way.

We’re continually amazed by businesses who fail to make the distinction between regular and complex initiatives. You can’t run a business-critical program as business-as-usual.

Each program requires a tailor-made team, a custom organisational model – and a dedicated, standalone plan. Organisation choices for business-critical programs have a dramatic impact on results.


Mistake #5. Program Director

The next mistake is a BIGGIE. Too many businesses “Appoint Coordinators” to run business-critical programs.

Mistake colossal.

Choose an experienced and capable “heavyweight” Program Director; a full-time appointment – not to be timeshared with any other role – and whose authority is never open to question.

The Program Director is an executive, not a coordinator.

Everyone wants a strong Program Director but when they get them, they don’t want them. Being comfortable never leads to success. Who is the best person to run a program? Someone who is available? Someone the CEO feels comfortable with, rather than someone who has better skills and hard-core practical experience?

Program Director appointments should be treated seriously as a COO, CFO or CTO.


Mistake #6. Resource Allocation

No one can whistle a symphony, it takes a whole orchestra. “Resource Allocation” is a chronic issue. Business-critical programs can’t be done with fragments of people’s time. Businesses prefer not to disturb functional structures – even if it means a program implodes.

Extensive “time-slicing” means the business hasn’t done enough to convert strategy-speak into action. The typhoon of routine daily activity prevents this.

Making regular priority-trades between normal business and mission-critical program activities is essential.

Functional heads in every business always play a pivotal role in “nourishing” a mission-critical program; they’re an indispensable part of the extended program team. Many of them sit on critical resource levers that make every program tick.


Mistake #7. Weak Program Control

Weak “Program Control” allows problems to multiply. One or two problems may not cause long-term difficulty, but an assortment of concealed issues can cause untold harm.

Many businesses sabotage themselves by grouping facts as either bad news or good news, rather than just as “facts” to be properly acted on.

Pragmatism is at the heart of execution – the performance management system is pivotal to control. There must be tracking, measurement and accountability. It strives for crisp, evidence-based answers to four basic questions: what’s happened, why, is it going to continue- and what are we going to do about it?

The reluctance to face facts is widespread – a major cause of poor execution. Weak control and reporting can mask detailed implementation difficulties for months. There must be an extraordinary level of intensity in the review process, focusing on truly significant drivers of progress.

But measurement is much more than judging progress – it’s also to find ways of performing better. Just about any athlete will tell you that.

Without measurement and accountability, there will be a decline in performance. With it, there will be stability, and usually, improvement in performance.

Make sure people know the score – all the time.


Mistake #8. Wrong Partnerships

Most programs are built on the success of at least one major supplier. Choosing “The Right Suppliers” and having a strong working partnership can make or break it. Cheap isn’t always better. When you need a top-notch partner, it’s critical to screen out offers that are “too good to be true.” It’s just a question of when you pay – before or after. Quality comes with a price.

A “partner to win” approach to supplier management, with joint business plans, eliminates long-term timewasting and unproductive bureaucracy. Many companies have similar goals but the reality rarely matches the rhetoric. Companies have much to gain from strategic supplier relationships.


Mistake #9. Risk Management

A conspicuous approach to Risk Management is essential to steer clear of fire-fighting. Many battered executives have learned that having “zero contingency” in program plans is a ridiculous approach. Sudden calamities do occur. Rough-cut schedules are always immature, intrinsically risky – and filled with wild guesses and made-up numbers. Hundreds of decisions affecting the schedule have still to be made.

Specifically, cross-dependencies between programs running elsewhere in the business are either not examined in enough detail or overlooked completely. The impact is always serious.

Program commitments based on “provided-that-someone-else-does-this-by-then” statements are not worth a candle – a clear sign that dependencies have been ignored.

Understanding the nature of risks; how likely they are to appear; and, specifically what can be done to lessen the brunt, gives program teams real confidence that potential disasters can be prevented, or worked around.


Mistake #10. Lack of Communication

Finally, BIG EXECUTION MISTAKE #10. “Communicate in “Spin-Free, Plain English.” Management can usually articulate the case for bold initiatives forcefully. But we’ve lost count of how many businesses express simple ideas in business language that is conceptual, muddled, sterile – and unremittingly clichéd.

The biggest problem is always a lack of understanding in the business about what it all means. If people don’t understand, they waste valuable time trying to read between the lines – and cynicism quickly grows.

The first step in making program strategy concrete is to explain the facts, without spin. The foundation for good execution is based on being very clear on what is required – and what has been achieved. Being precise is vital to success.

Benefits only come when a program strategy is implemented. Half measures don’t work. Plain talk is never easy to do but if you want to invigorate people, encourage them to make sacrifices and be innovative, you have to communicate explicitly – and then keep doing it.


The reasons for this naïveté and susceptibility to execution failures are many.

But here’s a big one: Execution Incest.

When you got into whatever business you’re in, you probably looked around at what other businesses were doing – and copied it. Little by little, you’ve tried to do it better. Not radically different, just better.

Everyone in an industry tends to read the same trade magazines, browse the same newsfeeds, go to the same trade shows – and even use the same consultants. They may even have previously worked for one or more industry competitors.

It’s incestuous – and it works like real generational incest. Everybody slowly gets dumber and dumber.

But here’s the news. Squeezing out more increments of efficiency is not safer than striking out in new directions.

You can’t just slap together an execution plan – the way it has always been done – and call it a day.

There are other ways.

So, now you have “The Top Ten Mega Execution Mistakes that Businesses Make.” How many are you currently making?