Execution: messy but necessary

By Bob Empson. http://www.whitemaple.com 

See the original article in pdf format at http://www.whitemaple.net/pdf/The_Review_Issue_5_White_Maple_Consulting_march_04.pdf

© White Maple Consulting Ltd 

Strategy formulation can be exciting: a journey of discovery. Analysis may produce new ways of looking at your organisation, its markets and its environment. Creative thinking is frequently a source of ideas, possibilities and solutions to both current and future challenges. A senior team will typically dedicate considerable time over a few weeks or months to craft a strategy for the organisation or a business unit. There is often excitement, or perhaps relief, when the documented strategy is agreed and approved. Unfortunately this is sometimes seen as the end of the process, or at least the completion of the most important step. In fact, the crucial phase is yet to come: execution.

As a consultant for some 20 years, I have often witnessed the frustration, confusion and even anger at the failure to implement agreed business strategies that would seem to have been suitable and feasible. Some of the most common reasons, many of which are usually within an organisation’s control, are discussed below.

COMMUNICATION In many organisations, if one asks people below the senior management tiers if they know what the organisation’s strategy is, they often don’t know. It is unsurprising then that will not know how they can contribute to effective implementation. Communication involves more than just broadcasting what the strategy is. People need to be helped to understand, through dialogue, the basis for the strategy and its priorities. Performance management systems can also assist communication through the process of agreeing performance objectives that are aligned with the organisation’s overall goals.

ACTION PLANNING Effective implementation can be impaired because business planning and budgeting processes are not aligned with the strategy formulation process. This can occur because, for example, the strategy context is not provided to business units before they start preparing their detailed plans. I have also seen organisations that have developed overall organisational strategies and then have had no process at all for translating this into operational plans. Another surprisingly common, and rather basic, problem is the failure of management to agree the precise “what, who, when” of actions (a test that you might like to try is to review at the end of a meeting all the actions agreed during the meeting; you will almost invariably find that there is a lack of clarity, or even disagreement, about what everyone thought had been confirmed earlier!).

PROJECT MANAGEMENT Strategy implementation often takes the form of a series of projects. Implementation can fail because, for example: the projects are not defined and documented; the programme of projects is too extensive; the roles of key stakeholders in the projects are not understood (useful for this is the tried and tested RACI model that defines who are Responsible and Accountable and who needs to be Consulted and kept Informed); there is weak co-ordination and management across the programme of strategic projects; or there are a lack of project management skills, experience and/or tools. Implementation through projects requires programme and project management skills, processes and discipline.

LEADERSHIP The senior leadership will, of course, have a central role in providing organisational direction through formulating strategy. However, implementation fails when leaders turn their attention to the next “big idea” before translating the strategy into action and then continually keeping the organisation focused on its priorities. Effective execution needs leaders to pay close attention to the detail of implementation.

COMMITMENT Implementation may not happen because there was not the commitment amongst key people to the strategy in the first place. For example, senior managers have told me how colleagues, or even they themselves, have been involved with formulating and agreeing strategies in which they had no belief and no intention of implementing. Their resistance to implementation of the strategy, and to the changes entailed, is often covert, rather than overt. Having some resistance to change is rarely always bad (the resistors may be right and their challenges may guide the organisation to refine and strengthen its strategy); however, implementation of strategy requires commitment and resistance to be surfaced and the use of targeted education, participation, incentives or “coercion” to gain commitment to implementation.

TEAM WORK Strategy implementation usually entails projects that cut across functional and business units. Problems arise when managers continue to focus on their functional “silos” rather than work effectively as a team to address cross-cutting issues. See also the article on the next page about developing effective teams.

COMPETENCE Sometimes implementation is not successful because, simply, the organisation does not have the knowledge, skills and experience to do what is required. As one Chief Executive once put it to me: “we couldn’t do it because we didn’t even understand the essay question.” Ideally there would be an assessment of what competences are required as part of the feasibility review of the emerging strategy. Organisations cannot always afford to create permanent posts (and, indeed, this is not always necessary or appropriate). Alternatives include: training/development of existing staff; short term contracts; and (of course!) input from consultants.

RESOURCES Another frequent barrier to implementation is a failure to identify the resources (e.g. money, systems, equipment, people and time) needed to make the strategy happen. There might also be a reluctance to invest additional resources that may be needed. However, more often than not, reallocation of existing resources to strategic initiatives will satisfy most of the requirements. Strategy and its implementation is just as much about making choices (and thus stopping doing some things) and reallocating resources, as it is about new initiatives.

MEASUREMENT An inability to measure progress with implementation can lead to a loss of momentum and direction. Monitoring performance against measurable shorter term targets can, where they are achieved, be a source of positive feedback. Likewise, identifying slippage against the strategy’s milestones can help organisations to get the implementation programme back on track by refocusing resources and effort. (You may find it useful to look back at the article on metrics in Issue 3, available on White Maple’s web site).

FATIGUE Another threat to effective implementation is the fatigue that can grow from having to cope with both a continuous stream of new initiatives, projects and challenges and also frequent exhortations about the need to improve, change and deliver. People can become weary, stale, passive and even cynical and destructive. The potential for fatigue can be reduced through, for example: careful prioritisation and phasing of initiatives; selective and targeted communications that focus on issues which are relevant and important to the audiences; and, perhaps, just occasionally taking the foot off the pedal.

For further reading on the subject of strategy implementation, you may wish to have a look at the books reviewed in Issue 4 of The Review. http://www.whitemaple.net/archive.html

Bob Empson