A recent Harvard Business Review (HBR) article on “Why Strategy and Execution Unravels…” squarely nails a sore spot many of us feel acutely but are too proud to admit: “…no Gantt chart survives contact with reality.”
As hard as leaders try, it’s rare that downstream execution efforts precisely reflect initial scheduling and strategic intent. And it’s not just misalignment of the ranks that’s to blame. After all, most organizations spend a lot of time and money communicating strategic plans – even to the point of asking downstream stakeholders if they are clear on strategic priorities … “Yes” is an easy box to check.
For researchers, it’s easier to quantify closed-ended (yes/no) questions than ‘dig for the gold’ in open-ended survey responses. So it’s no surprise that in a recent study among thousands of managers who check the “Yes, I’m clear” box, only 55% of them surveyed in a recent study could name even ONE of their company’s top strategic priorities (Sull, Sull & Homkes). Maybe there should have been a selection for “Yes, I think I kinda understand our top priorities but can’t articulate them.”
The above-mentioned HBR article, “Why Strategy Execution Unravels—and What to do About It” (March 2015) is based on a survey administered to 7,600 managers in 262 countries across 300 industries. It lists five of the most pervasive myths surrounding the gaps between strategy and execution, which account for unsatisfactory business results.
- Execution equals alignment
- Execution means sticking to the plan
- Communication equals understanding
- A performance culture drives execution
- Execution should be driven from the top down
The article is a great read and lands on a premise espoused in my book, “Getting There from Here: Bridging Strategy and Execution:” Though many organizations are expert at communicating strategic objectives to stakeholders, communication is not enough.
Understanding Strategic Intent v “Flawless Execution”
Memorizing a few bullet points won’t assure flawless execution. In fact, “flawless execution” itself promotes a perspective that undermines its own intent by implying lack of flexibility. It doesn’t account for changes in the environment and the myriad variables often visible only to the eyes and ears of those downstream. When a football receiver finds himself in possession of the ball and he’s suddenly staring down a wall of defense that looks decidedly different than in the planned play, he makes a decision to run out of bounds instead of toward the goal line. Though he did not execute “flawlessly” according to the plan, the result outweighed the risks, and still racked up yardage—the strategic priority. To stick with the original plan may have meant being tackled, injured, or risk a fumble and turnover. It was a judgement call by a receiver downfield who had perspective no other player or coach could have. In the same way, delegating downstream decision-making for strategic execution can distribute responsibilities among stakeholders. This unburdens leaders from the consequences of blind spots often encountered when “puppeteering” from above.
Confirming downstream stakeholders truly understand the intent of strategic priorities empowers them to be insightful and flexible about how they execute (within limits). Instead of pushing alignment downward, an organization can actually align culture upward to meet strategic intent. This can be accomplished by taking action to:
- Educate about the meaning behind the strategic priorities, what it means to each stakeholder in their functional role
- Develop behaviors that contribute to implementation of strategic priorities at various functional levels
- Establish channels to push insights upstream quickly
- Allow for flexibility in both strategy and execution while in-play—as long as they are deliberate and coordinated
Ideally strategic priorities are expressed in terms of how they benefit customers directly or how they benefit the organization so it can better serve its customers. Through this lens, execution may not look exactly like what the strategic architects envisioned, but it can be even more effective.
More than just communicating, truly educating and training all levels of stakeholders about their active roles in supporting strategic priorities is essential to bridge strategy and execution. Allowing for flexibility in strategy can take advantage of downstream perspective as well as help master the art of agility. Donald Sull (senior lecturer at MIT Sloan) coined the “strategy loop” concept, which allows for reshaping strategy, potentially in mid-play, to account for changes in any number of variables. Given our modern era ability to garner real-time feedback, it’s more important than ever before to ride the reshaping waves of change toward executional success.
Aligning More than Minds, but Also Behaviors
To do is to learn. People can learn how to directly contribute to strategic priorities faster if they are shown direct links between their daily jobs and the priorities. This can be accomplished by providing downstream stakeholders with concrete, measurable examples of things they can do every day in the course of their functional roles to address specific strategic priorities. Ideally, these tasks should be framed in a customer focus. With this in place, organizations can harness untapped power for execution. This strategy can empower every soul in the organization to put their shoulder to the same wheel—all in the name of the customer. As personal relevance to strategic priorities increases with stakeholders, so does distributed power for execution.
Though the idea seems “V8-simple,” in practice it can be a significant undertaking. This kind of change proposition requires a deliberate commitment of resources and a permanent shift in culture.
The best way to begin is to focus on confirming your downstream stakeholders (those in your critical path for execution) truly understand the strategic intent, how they can actively participate in achieving it, and what it means to them in their role.
For more on this topic contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org