Many leaders are visionaries who spend a substantial amount of their organization’s human, financial and emotional resources dreaming about what their company can be and what it’ll take to get there, but then comes the inevitable failure in terms of execution. Organizations regularly fail to make the leap from defining a fact-based, well-reasoned strategy to successful implementation. In fact, research indicates that more than half of company executives surveyed don’t believe that their organization has a winning strategy. Whereas, two-thirds responded that their business lacked the requisite capabilities to execute a strategy even if they were able to develop one.*
So why does this happen? For a lot of reasons, but key ones are 1) a lack of a specific implementation plan with clear owners, milestones, and KPIs, 2) a knowledge gap between the strategy and implementation teams, 3) politics that create the illusion of a zero-sum game, 4) an unwillingness to take risks in the spirit of self-preservation and 5) being bound by conventional, outdated thinking. Companies who fall victim to one or more of these issues often end up mortgaging away their future in exchange for avoiding short-term pain and complexity. How do you get around these problems?
There are a number of ways to solve for the above, but here are a few steps to help you begin to bridge the strategy-execution gap:
Companies regularly fail to make the leap from defining a fact-based, well-reasoned strategy to successful implementation.
First, set achievable incremental goals.
It’s tempting to lay out an exciting, aggressive plan. One that focuses on a large future pay-off and that, as a result, potentially attracts significant resource commitment to your side. While an ambitious strategic plan isn’t bad, it can also serve to derail you along the way. Progress against long-term goals is seldom linear and, in most cases, you’re learning to crawl and then walk before you can run. Problem is, during the crawl phase, the going can be slow as you begin to chip away at the big long-term goals in front of you. And that can result in perceived lack of performance, which in our myopic, quarterly reporting culture can cause your plan to deflate. So, even if you’re aiming high, it’s much more effective to be realistic and upfront about what’s achievable year-over-year and to then get organizational focus and commitment around those goals rather than just the desired end-state.
Second, create accountability and a bias towards action.
At a basic level, this involves translating strategy into one-year, tactical operating plans that directly tie into and feed the budgeting process. It’s hard to imagine how, without such clear and specific guidance, execution teams and line-managers can consistently and collectively make progress against a three- or five-year strategy. And while all effective execution starts with a plan, you have to go a step further. As few people possess the bias towards action that results in them consistently and actively managing against those plans proactively. Clear definition of KPIs with which to measure performance and linkages to compensation and incentives structures cascading down from the C-suite to line managers helps create the alignment necessary to get everyone pulling together, in the same direction. That assumes incentives-based compensation is substantial enough to drive behavior. But that is a topic for another post.
Third, make sure your people have what it takes.
Not only do you need to have the right structure, but you have to have the right people in the right boxes. And while, in some instances, you have to make hard choices and restructure your organization to help stimulate growth, that isn’t always necessary. There are often opportunities to re- or up-skill your teams to perform more effectively day-in-day out. And the advantage of doing so is that you’re able to hold onto the knowledge and expertise already resident within your team. Of course, every organization will run into instances where, despite continued investment, key line managers simply won’t be able to perform and / or won’t be able to adapt to your shifting culture. And in such instances, you have to know when to pull the plug as personnel changes may ultimately be required to create the spark necessary to get unstuck and begin making real progress. Having the right people in the right jobs goes a long way in enhancing accountability, communication and cooperation.
As we barrel towards the mid-point of 2016, we stand at the front-end of most companies’ annual planning processes. And as you begin the process of kicking off your own, we’d challenge you to think about whether you have the capability and process in place to not just come up with a strong, market-centric strategy but to get your organization to take action on it in a systematic and progressive way. And, if not, do you understand where your gaps are and how to solve for them?
*Source: HBR December 2015
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