CONGRATULATIONS! You’ve just finished that two-day offsite (or zoom) session to develop your strategic plan and do some executive team development. You’ve done an excellent job of getting all the stakeholders involved in defining your SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats), an aspirational vision and a clear and compelling mission statement, list of company values and 3-5 strategies. That was a lot of work, but you feel good about how well everyone participated; and the plan moving forward feels right.
Now comes a crucial point: translating the plan into action. Most strategic plans never achieve what they were intended for in the first place; to make some forward movement in the business. Most strategic plans never get past the flip charts they were written on and make it new important new mindsets, actions and behaviors. The reason why this happens starts at the design phase of the strategic planning process. When we work with clients, long before we get in the room and begin discussing their strategies or goals, we prepare them to plan on several meetings long after the planning session to translate the plan into goals, KPI’s, SOPS, scorecards, task forces or “accountable people”.
Myths and truths to executing a plan
Myth #1: Execution means alignment. Translating strategy into objectives, down through the hierarchy, measuring progress and rewarding results.
Truth: Coordinate across business units so issues aren’t resolved incorrectly, too quickly or left to fester. Even with cross-function work groups tasked with coordinating across units it’s important to increase trust and process to ensure commitments to colleagues as it is to leadership.
Myth #2: Execution means sticking to a plan. After spending an enormous amount of time formulating the plan and its associated budget, executives view deviation as a lack of discipline that undercuts execution.
Truth: Execute with agility. Adapt to facts on the ground, surmount unexpected obstacles and take advantage of fleeting opportunities. Reallocate funds, people and attentions in the right places, as needed. Divest unsuccessful initiatives.
Myth #3: Communication equals understanding. The number of town hall meetings, emails, PowerPoint presentations and other ways to state and restate the strategy does not mean people will understand what a priority is, and thus, take appropriate action.
Truth: Deliver a clear single message: Leadership must first understand how the strategic priorities connect. Don’t dilute strategic priorities alongside other initiatives. Leadership must speak from the same page
Myth #4: Performance cultures drive execution. Only focusing on hitting the numbers fosters rigidity, myopathy and playing it safe while opportunities are missed, and risks sneak up and surprise.
Truth: Reward collaboration. Reward agility, teamwork and ambition and a willingness to risk and experiment. Focus on performance and coordination and collaboration
Myth #5: Execution must be driven from the top. Unravels happen after the departure of a strong CEO. Managers lose the ability to work things out with colleagues and instead kick issues up to leadership
Truth: Empower managers. Push decisions down to where the work is performed. Leadership should avoid resolving conflicts and empower local managers to do so instead. Leadership supports managers with guidance, coaching and strategies that are clear. Leadership should model teamwork and provide process to encourage coordination.
Larry Bossidy, former Chairman of Honeywell and fellow author Ram Charan provides these three core ideas in their book, Execution: The Discipline in Getting Things Done:
The people process: This is about having the right people in the right place, it is about knowing the strengths, weaknesses, capabilities and capacities of the people in an organization and it is about development as well as about hiring and firing. This process is all about connecting the people to the strategy and operations. People are at the core of any business; they are the ones that make decisions and create strategies. It’s important to create the links between the people and the strategy and operations. Establishing this link will encourage people to remain focused and motivated and will keep everyone accountable.
The strategy process: In many organizations this is an annual meeting at which people present numerous PowerPoint slides and answer a few questions. The authors argue that these sessions are too short-lived and rarely examine the subjects under discussion with the rigor and robustness that they deserve. Another problem is that strategies are often settled upon that are intellectually appealing but that the organization is incapable of implementing. They reinforce that it is absolutely essential that strategy not only addresses the what but also the how. Without understanding how the strategy will be implemented it will face almost certain failure.
The operations process: Once the strategy has been agreed, it is all too common for organizations to then set targets, agree on budgets and allocate resources, give the unit manager a slap on the back and then move on to the next topic with absolutely no discussion as to how, or even whether, you can get the desired results. The people process defines who is going to help the business get there. The final piece of the puzzle is the operation process, designed to define the road ahead, the path that people can follow.