January 20, 2014

Execution: Not Even the Best Strategic Plan Self-Executes

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Parenting doesn’t end the moment you and your spouse decide to have a baby. It doesn’t end after the baby showers and birthing classes. It certainly doesn’t end after the doctor hands you your screaming (and slimy) bundle of joy. Those things are just the prep work and planning stages. They get you to the starting line.   When you walk out the hospital doors and buckle in your little one for the first time, that’s when the real fun begins.   In much the same way, strategy is more than just planning what your organization will do next. It’s more than brainstorming, concepting, and finalizing your plan. You also have to make it happen over a period of time—effectively and cost efficiently, so that you achieve your purpose.   What we’re talking about here is execution: getting things done. Execution is not some separate, lesser phase, subsumed under tactics rather than strategy. Execution is a part of strategy.   Lawrence G. Hrebiniak, author of Making Strategy Work, said, “When companies separate the planning and doing—that’s wrong. Executive strategy requires ownership at all levels, from corporate level managers on down.”   Strategic success demands a simultaneous view of planning and doing. The greater the overlap of doers and planners, the greater the probability of success.   More Important than Ever I would suggest that good execution is actually more important in the Strategy 3.0 world than in the world that is passing. Here’s why: the flip side of the fact that fast innovation has become so widespread is that ideas are a dime a dozen. Good execution can set you apart from a competitor who’s spinning out game-changing concepts but doesn’t know how to turn them into winning products or services.   In the latest edition of their classic book on execution, Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan point out that, as competition becomes fiercer, the ability to execute can become the factor that determines who survives. They argue that leaders need to link the three central factors of people, strategy, and operations to build a company based on dialogue, intellectual honesty, and realism.   Merging Strategy and Execution Business performance consultant Ed Barrows reported on how Prescolite and Progress Lighting— two brands of Connecticut-based Hubbell Incorporated—merged strategy and execution.   They created a process that incorporates both strategy formulation activities, such as ongoing analysis of changes in market conditions, with execution activities, such as management of integrated strategic programs. At the start of the planning year, they perform a “deep dive” on critical competitive issues facing the businesses. The remainder of the year they focus on measuring and monitoring the progress they are making. They also keep a running list of “must-do” integrated programs that they readjust as business conditions change.   Consider these keys to successful execution that I have observed along the way:

  • Understand your internal resources (people, money, capacity, and so on).
  • Establish clear, reachable goals.
  • Communicate and over-communicate with everyone involved.
  • Establish role clarity and set up swim lanes for what must be done.
  • Empower people to do their jobs.
  • Provide top-down support and be ready to clear roadblocks and hurdles.
  • Measure results.

The authors of a Harvard Business Review article on execution put it this way, “A brilliant strategy, blockbuster product, or breakthrough technology can put you on the competitive map, but only solid execution can keep you there. You have to be able to deliver on your intent.”   Execution is at a premium in today’s world. You can’t just give birth to a great idea. You also have to nurture it to maturity.  

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