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Execution Fuels Strategy

"However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results." ~ Winston Churchill

Is strategy more important than execution? Or is it the other way around? Strategic planning sessions, offsite strategic retreats, strategy updates are all pretty common business vernacular. I often hear requests for strategic planning sessions but never hear of execution planning sessions. Is this because we assume business operations takes care of delivering strategy? CEOs and senior leaders create the plan and staff ‘just make it happen’? Does a symphony create wonderful music by just willing it to happen? Developing a solid strategy is important and too often has a larger leadership focus than strategy execution.

"Most everyone would agree that you cannot achieve good results without having good execution; similarly, most would agree that having a good strategy alone is no surefire formula for success." Strategy & Business

Maybe the key question is not about which is more important but rather what makes execution more difficult. Logically, executing on any business or organizational strategy involves more people, communications, and resource coordination with concurrently more risk something will go wrong or not quite as planned. A strategy can not foresee every opportunity or constraint that will either help or hinder success yet by taking some basic steps, consistently, successful execution can be improved. While a solid strategy will provide a strategic roadmap of not just the ‘what’ but the ‘how’. This involves required priorities, people, systems and processes so execution can deliver on strategy much like a symphony brings together each musician to play exactly as planned.

"Three out of every five companies rate their organization as weak on strategy execution." How to Move from Strategy to Execution, Harvard Business Review

Further insights from this HBR read state, “we have yet to meet a single leader who reports that their strategy is wrong but they are excellent at execution. Likewise, when you dig into the potential barriers to implementation, there is a general lack of understanding of the various factors at play, resulting in the inevitable managerial justifications — “poor leadership,” “inadequate talent,” “lack of process excellence,” or the still popular “culture eats strategy for breakfast.””

There are three critical areas of focus for any business or organization to master strategy execution. They may sound easy but are not as each are too often overused.

1. Setting Priorities: clearly communicating priorities in alignment with strategy for each level of operations. This involves determining how results flow from the ‘what’ of the strategy. Remembering the Pareto Principle, 80% of results come from 20% of the effort! Often setting these priorities involves a process of actively reducing the number of priorities since there is too often a tendency to have more priorities expecting a resulting better focus. Comes to mind here is the idiom, “too many priorities usually leads to no priorities”! I find using the rule of three works best. This involves no person having more than three priorities. Information presented in threes forms a pattern which can be more easily remembered. Questions to consider:

  • Everyone very clear on their priorities?

  • Are priorities outlined for month, quarter, and year?

  • Do priorities ensure focus, alignment, and accountability?

2. Utilizing metrics: metrics are much like lights on a road when driving at night; they guide the path through execution of any strategy. Including both leading and lagging key performance indicators, helps brings clarity. Again, often we see a reliance on trying to use too many metrics or ones which do not align execution with the strategy. This may come from a belief that having more metrics is better and increases the likelihood of staying on course. Experience shows that having one ‘critical number’ is much more effective than having too many metrics. Questions to consider:

  • Are our metrics aligned to strategy execution?

  • Do we have the right number of metrics? How do we know?

  • If you could only have one metric, what would this critical number be?

3. Regular collaboration: this involves regular communication touch points to connect, align, and synchronize everyone in order to have better and faster decisions. This includes a regular schedule of meetings, highly focused and integrated together on an annual and rolling basis. Most businesses either have too few meetings or too many, with the later being the default. This results in too much information sharing, and not enough strategy execution aligned decision making. Too much time is wasted, goals are not met, and disengagement can set in. Questions to consider?

  • There is a regular schedule of meetings with the correct participants with clear agendas and action item outcomes?

  • How are key messages communicated effectively and are they reaching the right audience?

  • What does our effective communications rhythm look like?

A bonus for readers here is one of my favourite practices as outlined by Kevin Duggan in Design for Operational Excellence which is to make it visual:

“make the flow visual, allowing everyone (even a visitor) to see it”

Priorities, metrics, and collaboration should easily allow everyone in the business to see the same picture of the business in motion. Our individual perceptions of written and spoken communications often leads to miscommunications and misunderstandings impacting effective execution. Some may say that, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ so using simple graphs, charts and roadmaps can make it much easier to gain collective clarity for execution.

In their classic best selling book, Execution, ex-CEO Larry Bossidy and advisor Ram Charan point out that creating a strategy involves thinking about execution:

“An astonishing number of strategies fail because leaders don’t make a realistic assessment of whether the organization can execute the plan”

Execution of a business or organizational strategy is complicated and complex. Invest more time ensuring the basics of successful execution are in place and watch as your strategy provides sustained growth. Being more systematic about execution fuels an effective strategy.

Jerome Dickey, MA, ACC, CPHR, Q.Med


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