At a recent workshop on strategy execution one of the executives said she felt ‘stuck’ as she thought about how to translate their strategy into outcomes. That’s unsurprising. Research consistently shows organisations massively under-perform on strategy execution. The result is most organisations leave a massive amount of value on the table.
There are two dimensions to strategy execution: the rational-analytical technical dimension; and the more abstract socio-cultural element. We typically spend most of our time in the technical domain. But the big pay-off comes from the socio-cultural domain. This is the fundamental leadership challenge.
Here are five practices that will give you a winning edge in strategy execution.
- Begin with a high quality strategy. Most companies think their strategy is pretty good. But as Professor Roger Martin declares, if your entirely comfortable with your strategy, there’s a strong chance it isn’t very good. A recent MIT article argues that managers have lost sight of the need to think. And as organisations become larger, the executive become more distant from the details that influence strategy. Great strategists do not abstract themselves from the detail, but immerse themselves in the detail whilst extracting the strategic insights. I argue for a process of immersion, synthesis, and simplification.
- Broaden and deepen engagement. Broadening the inputs will improve the quality of choices, highlight critical implementation issues and improve receptivity when it comes to change. Managers who are not engaged lack the context to understand the strategic choices made, or to reinforce the strategy through the decisions they make every day. Research tells us that most executives over-estimate the extent to which their subordinates share their view of the world. Without this shared context they become confused and de-energised. And McKinsey research tells us that even the most successful transformation companies say they would spend more time engaging the staff if they had to lead another transformation.
- Passion is the fuel that creates the determination to succeed. To quote BP, we always start with the foundation of rationality, but we recognise that will only take you so far. You need be able to express your passion. Absent passion, it becomes just another chore. Some business leaders are wary of ‘passion’ in business. These leaders will leave value untapped. Passion also establishes authenticity: leaders who overly moderate their expressivity pay a price in lower levels of trust. Expressivity allows followers to read you better, and is an important signal of real commitment. And commitment is an essential condition for execution.
- Leadership is a conversation. What do you do as a leader? I don’t mean in some abstract, academic sense. But in practical terms. What do you do? You make some decisions. You write memos, board papers, emails. But the most influential thing you do is engage in conversations. Every conversation is a leadership opportunity. An opportunity to help your teams to ‘make meaning’. To make sense of the context and uncertainty that surrounds business today. To put context around the initiatives that come from the strategy and connect the new and the old. Conversations reinforce what is important. A few key themes consistently reinforced support the new direction. If your new strategy is about customer focus, and the word customer rarely appears in your conversations, you will fail. Conversations are also a powerful way to lift engagement. But these conversations have to be real; authentic. You need to move from corporate speak to a more ‘intimate’ form of conversation.
- Build an execution rhythm. A friend and client has built an impressive track record of building high performance organisations. He has a repeatable model which begins with ‘getting the right people on the bus’. His ‘personal brand’ attracts a high calibre team. Building the strategy is the next step in the process. This is then translated into a set of ‘top 5’ priorities for the year. These cascade to priorities for the next quarter; next month; next week. And this shapes the conversational agenda across the business.
At the same time, the leadership team re-defines the operating model to ensure clarity around accountabilities. The clarity around strategy, priorities and accountabilities is a core element of an execution architecture . But it is the reinforcing focus on the execution rhythm that builds into the business an execution culture.
Certainly there is more to strategy execution than can be captured in 750 words and five dot points. But if you integrate these five principles with the ‘technical’ part of the execution agenda – planning, systems, structures, resourcing – I promise your execution dividends will be much greater.
Let me close with this quote from one of the scholars in the field:
Strategy execution is not a trivial part of managerial work: it defines the essence of that work.
If you want help to ‘unstick’ your execution efforts, ask about our strategy execution workshops.