Three Ways to Bridge the Execution Gap
'Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do.'
I’ve been a management consultant for over 20 years and have had the pleasure of working with thousands of people in hundreds of public and private sector businesses, helping them to improve the effectiveness of their organizations.
Few things make me happier than to see the hard work of engaged and passionate people implemented to good effect. For example, one of my favourite projects was a far ranging production and quality improvement effort in a huge, but struggling, sawmill. There, I saw empowered teams of formerly disengaged staff lead their mill from the lowest to the highest performer in the business unit. Along the way, they dramatically improved safety performance while adding millions of dollars to the bottom line. Conversely, few things frustrate me (and probably you) more than to see the results of a lot of hard work fall flat on its face due to a lack of execution.
Steven Covey observed that, “Execution is the great unaddressed issue in most organizations today. So many crucial initiatives fail, so many change efforts collapse, due to this yawning gap.” After seeing the fallout from the ‘execution gap’ one too many times, I developed a particular professional interest in the art and science of executing well, and of establishing a solid alignment between:
- developing a vision, and
- taking action to realize it.
How can you bridge the execution gap? What is the best way to lead strategic alignment?
To the eternal frustration of those with high workloads, low budgets and short attention spans, the solution is less than obvious. Of course, it’s not as easy as just ‘ordering’ others to do it. In my experience there are almost always three key, dynamic forces at play when trying to lead any kind of improvement in organizational alignment:
- Strategic planning practices
- Leadership approaches
- Learning culture dynamics
Strategic Planning Practices
Strategic planning practices have traditionally been ‘ivory tower’ exercises, open only to a select few. Sequestered in camera, planning teams will slave away trying to figure everything out down to the last detail then, usually, emerge and announce changes with great fanfare and ceremony along with many promises of future benefits.
Although this may have been a viable approach many years ago, when organizations could depend on a relatively high level of economic certainty, in the chaos that is the present day reality for most organizations, these unilateral, top down driven approaches are often short lived. Like opening an umbrella in a hurricane, these plans for the future are usually shredded into confetti.
So what kind of planning approaches work best these days?
The best way to create ownership of any strategy is to get everyone involved in building it—to empower them. The result must be a plan with ownership facilitated by a cross organizational team that is well resourced and led. As Covey says, execution success is, “… all about executing the strategy: set up the structure, get the right people in the right jobs with the right tools and support, and then get out of the way and give help as requested.”
So what kind of leaders are the most effective? Humble ones, who can walk the talk. Ego-centric control freaks need not apply because….
Guess what boss? It’s all about you.
The best strategic alignment initiatives are led by transformational leaders. Transformational leadership is a style that transforms people, or organizations, from one state to another largely through vision setting and delegation. In contrast to charismatic leaders who tend to (egotistically) focus on themselves as the key component of any change initiative, transformational leaders do more to empower staff and make them less dependent on the leader such as, according to Gary Yukl a world renowned thought leader in this realm:
- delegating significant authority to individuals
- developing follower skills and self-confidence
- creating self-managed teams
- providing direct access to sensitive information
- eliminating unnecessary controls, and
- building a strong culture to support empowerment.
Leaders must encourage involvement in decision making by everyone, and the emergence of leaders everywhere. Management theorist Peter Drucker warned, “most discussions of decision making assume that only senior executives make decisions. This is a dangerous mistake. Decisions are made at every level of the organization.” Also, while it’s important for leaders to communicate verbally to promote change, the best way they can lead strategic alignment is to demonstrate it through their actions. In other words, boss, you need to walk the talk.
Learning Culture Dynamics
The prevailing learning culture will determine to what extent people at all levels may engage in the planning and execution process, and the level of risk leaders are willing to take. Successfully realigning organizational strategy requires high levels of innovation and creativity, which assumes accepting a certain level of risk. In ‘fail safe’ organizations, people are punished for getting things wrong. In ‘safe to fail’ organizations, people are recognized and rewarded for getting things right. To be successful, you must promote a ‘safe to fail’ learning culture within an overall climate of responsible risk taking. In short, accept that you will likely skin your knee once or twice on your execution journey and….
So, in answer to my original questions: How can you bridge the execution gap? What is the best way to lead strategic alignment?
- During the planning process: Keep it messy
- Leaders (at all levels) remember: Guess what boss, it’s all about you
- When it’s time to act: Be bold.