The gap between strategy and execution has been a common pitfall of many businesses over the decades and still haunts businesses today. However, overcoming this strategy execution gap is critical in our ever-changing business environment. Steve Jobs once said, ‘… ideas are worth nothing unless executed. They are just a multiplier. Execution is worth millions.’.
Leaders that become hyper-focused on developing the perfect strategy for their business can find themselves lost in the minutia of analysis and lagging in strategic execution. First, these leaders need to realize that strategy involves making choices for an uncertain future, so more likely than not, there will be aspects where you are wrong. Secondly, developing a strategy does not have to be complicated, seriously. Thirdly, executing a ‘good’ strategy will always beat those still thinking.
Steve Jobs once said, ‘… ideas are worth nothing unless executed. They are just a multiplier. Execution is worth millions.’.
In helping companies develop and execute their strategies, it is our experience that there are a common set of factors that distinguish those leaders and companies that are great at execution from those who can not get it done. These factors are:
- There is clarity and commitment to the strategy.
- The team has focus and discipline.
- Individuals and groups communicate.
- There is execution cadence, habits, and rituals.
- They keep score.
CLARITY AND COMMITMENT TO THE STRATEGY
A company might have, what they believe, to be the most incredible strategic plan in the world. But unfortunately, if no one understands the plan or is committed to making it happen, there is no chance of successful execution.
Understanding the Strategy Execution Gap
Setting the execution groundwork begins with creating clarity and commitment for the strategy. The Harvard Business Review invited thousands of employees to partake in an online assessment of their organizational capabilities. Surprisingly (or not), the assessment revealed that 71% of employees in companies with weak execution believe strategic decisions are second-guessed. In contrast, 45% of employees from companies with strong execution believed the same. Reading those numbers may not leave any leader optimistic on the faith of their implementation. However, this number reduction does demonstrate the importance of leadership commitment and team clarity around the strategy.
Creating clarity begins with the Leader’s sharing the strategy within their business, so there is an awareness of it. They also need to provide context and the rationale for ‘why’ these strategic decisions have been made. Many people may not have strategic clarity until they understand this ‘why.’ Ask yourself, would you be more committed to executing a plan where all you knew was that you needed to do ‘X.’ Or, if we do ‘X,’ we believe we can beat our competitors because…? We assume it would be the latter. The understanding of this ‘why’ creates alignment and provides clarity to operational activities for the team.
It should be noted that achieving clarity on the strategy is not done by sending everyone a glossy version of the strategic plan or holding a town hall where it is only presented. Instead, clarity is achieved through engagement in honest dialogue. Meaning the leadership team spends the time to explain the strategy in simple terms, what the company will and will not do. Why strategic decisions have been made and how the team can contribute to achieving the plan. It also means the team has the opportunity to ask questions. This operational choice will go a long way in moving your team towards strategic commitment.
Committing to the Strategy
Commitment to executing a plan in a work setting typically increases if people understand the linkage between what they are doing and how their contributions make the company successful. Leaders need to spend the time to make these connections. We believe by doing this, you will start to have team members that work hard because they want to, not because they must. This connection will also reduce doubt and second-guessing strategic decision-making and avoid potentially wasting resources and time. When stakeholders and teams commit to a strategy, this commitment translates into resources, operational capacity, design and authority.
To be great at execution, the team needs to have clarity into what they need to do, understand why that will help them win, and understand their role in making it happen. With clarity comes commitment and buy-in and strategic buy-in, ensuring the team is prime to deliver in execution.
FOCUS AND DISCIPLINE
Achieving your strategic objectives and goals does not occur overnight. It is a long game and one that demands leaders to stay focused on the prize. Execution requires leaders and their teams to become and remain laser-focused on their strategic aspirations and the priorities that support achieving those aspirations. Leaders who do not stay focused on their strategic aspiration(s) can find themselves misaligned and stumbling through execution. Even the healthiest of leadership teams is no exception. To become laser-focused necessitates teams to stay clear on what they will and will not do as part of their strategy. Staying clear requires discipline and not being distracted. As bold leaders and entrepreneurs, it is easy to detract from focused priorities at the prospect of another ‘great’ idea.
Discipline in Execution
Chasing the next great idea is exciting. Hey, we understand when growing and scaling, it can be easy to find yourself pursuing the next iteration, the next new market, the next…, but we want to remind you; there are no overnight success stories. Overnight success stories are leaders and businesses that have become very focused and deliberate on their execution. I am not saying that once you have created your strategy, you never revisit it or change it. I am saying that you have the discipline to evaluate market shifts and potential opportunities. During this evaluation, you can determine if you need to change your strategic direction. If you decide to, determine what needs to stop so that the team is not stretched too thin and can successfully execute the plan.
Often execution falters when Teams are focused on pursuing too many strategic priorities. If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.
Execution also requires consistency. You are consistently working on the plan, one small step at a time. If you try to execute your strategy at the end of the quarter or end of the year, it just does not work. This can be tough – just like chasing shiny objects, people want to see results, but this is the long game. Learning from the concepts of psychology, you need to have the discipline to pursue delayed gratification (“the refusal to overcome the temptation of immediate short-term rewards, to achieve the greater long-term goal” – think lifestyle change). The consistent, ongoing effort, even 1% extra each day, can significantly impact the execution rather than trying to sprint a marathon.
INDIVIDUALS AND TEAMS COMMUNICATE
Championship teams communicate. These teams communicate successfully both on and off the field. Whether it is providing clarity in understanding the plan, creating space so that everyone has a voice, providing and receiving feedback, or communicating directions and adjustments during the game, great teams focus on communication. Phil Jackson, a championship-winning coach in the NBA, is known to have made the Bulls practice in silence. Can you imagine winning a basketball game when the team is being silent? In basketball, there is a lot of chatter. In the locker room, in practice, on the court between teams, however, chatter does not mean communication. Communication is an exchange of information between individuals or teams. By having his team practice in silence, Phil Jackson wanted to demonstrate the significance of communication.
The same holds true in business; communication is paramount. When each member knows where they are going and why, what needs to be done and understands their role on the team, the entire team is empowered to win. Lack of communication results in misguided direction and team breakdown.
Some of the typical communication pitfalls we have seen in executing a strategic plan are:
- Not communicating (seriously, not kidding).
- Only communicating the strategy to a select group within the team. We understand that some things are confidential. However, if the strategy is getting a customer to choose your product and/or service, you likely should engage (to some extent) those who work with your customers. Incomplete information, both up and down, may result in the wrong actions being taken by your team.
- Believing that ‘telling’ generates understanding. Leaders need to seek clarification when communicating messages – this means engaging in two-way dialogue and taking the time to do so.
- Lack of clarity on who has authority to make decisions. In the absence of this clarity, execution can screech to a halt.
- Not stating or misinterpretation of assumptions. All involved in execution should know the assumption(s) underpinning the strategy. If not, they may not know to communicate when an assumption proves to be untrue or make decisions inconsistent with the intended strategic direction.
- No communication between teams. Teams remain siloed and silent.
- Not listening. Not listening to what your customers are saying and not listening to what your team is saying.
Great teams that execute well communicate, communicate, communicate.
Leaders and owners that communicate their strategic aspirations with their team empower all members to make deliberate choices to support and execute the strategy. Continuous communication ensures that all team members remain aligned and understand how they contribute to the overall success of the execution. This understanding allows for teams to develop an execution cadence.
EXECUTION CADENCE, RITUALS AND HABITS
Have you ever watched a sports team that is great at execution? Everything looks rehearsed; more importantly, it looks fluid. The team is efficient and effective at what they do, everyone is doing their part, and more importantly, they are typically winning.
Those teams typically have great coaches who put structure around their system, creating habits. This structure is a defined schedule that the team follows repeatedly.
For example, rest on Monday, weights and conditioning at X, team practice at Y, film at Z and spend an ordinate amount of time honing skills (i.e., “getting in their reps”) so that when they are playing the game, they can hopefully execute flawlessly. Great teams have a defined cadence in their execution based on a defined set of rituals and habits.
Companies that are also great at execution have a defined cadence in how they execute based on prescribed rituals and habits. One of those habits that makes them successful is not working from the mantra “work harder”!
Some of the rituals and habits these leaders put in place include:
- Continuously prioritize the most important task(s) to support execution. Leaders make sure communication is occurring to identify who is doing what. It is essential to ensure that people are not working on the wrong things or duplicating efforts.
- Have defined meetings (e.g., daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly) with a unique purpose and attendees. For example, only focus on operational issues during the weekly meeting and only strategic items during the monthly strategy meeting. Leaders may feel like they are experiencing Death by Meetings; however, the goal is to be purposeful.
- Create a space to learn and improve from mistakes continuously. Yes, mistakes. The team will frequently meet to discuss what they should start, stop, and continue and conduct retrospective meetings after achieving the desired outcome.
- Focus on training and development.
- Celebrate successes.
Most importantly, these leaders recognize that an organization needs to learn how to execute. Rituals and habits reinforce the commitment to the strategy and ensure a space for communication that keeps alignment and a focus on execution.
Great teams, also keep score. Companies that are great with execution have a scoreboard. The scoreboard is designed to tell them if they are meeting their targets to drive execution or not. Is the team winning or losing in execution? They select metrics that focus on the most important things to support their strategy and provide a balanced perspective on how they are performing. Every member on the team knows the score.
- Metrics are not only financial. They also focus on strategy, operations, people, and the customer.
- Metrics are a balance of leading and lagging measures. Leading measures are ones that you control and contribute to the desired outcome (lag measure). For example, a lead metric might be the number of sales calls made, and the lag measure will be total revenue from new customers.
Consider a scoreboard in basketball. The scoreboard metrics include the points for each team, the quarter, the countdown clock, and the number of fouls. This scoreboard is visible to everyone, players, coaches, assistants, fans and provides critical information in determining how the game is progressing. If your scoreboard is effective, the team will know with a glance how they are progressing in execution, if they are winning or losing. Just as you would if you were looking at a scoreboard in basketball. This means your scoreboard needs to be simple. It also implies that a great scoreboard is not built for those leading the work. It needs to be understandable by those who are executing. The score allows teams to measure progress and remain disciplined in execution and, most importantly, aligned.
Closing the gap between strategy and execution can be (is) a competitive advantage for leaders and owners who commit to their strategy. Strategic execution can not be done by leaders alone. This requires strategic buy-in from the entire team. Successful execution takes time and discipline. Bold leaders and entrepreneurs who have adopted an execution mindset and disciplined approach can differentiate themselves from those who are lagging in execution by:
- Creating clarity.
- Creating focus for their team.
- Creating execution cadence, habits, and rituals.
- Keeping score.
A winning strategy is one that is executed.