Almost half of all strategic initiatives fail due to poor execution – Economist Intelligence Unit 2013
The cost to businesses for such a high failure rate is enormous and at times fatal.
I believe ‘leadership’ is a problem. In Peter Drucker’s seminal work Management, he said that management consisted of 4 elements – Planning, Organising, Control and Leadership. ‘Leadership’ is not an end unto itself.
For almost twenty years we have been focused on turning out leaders at the expense of managers. Everyone wants leadership training; few ask for management training. Today there are leadership teams aplenty which, by dint of their title, are not focused enough on the management of the plan. In the words of Stephen Covey
‘Effective leadership is putting first things first…Effective management is discipline, carrying it out.’
Leaders must develop the skills to manage execution.
Business strategies fail not because they are inadequate but because they are poorly implemented. Why is this? There are many, varied and complex reasons but I will focus on one and touch on a couple of others which will get any team off to an excellent start.
The first hurdle is the team. It does not matter how clever your strategy is if your team does not understand it, buy into it or does not have the ability and resources to execute it, the plan will have next to no chance of succeeding. A good team can win with a mediocre strategy. Hire the best you can and motivate them to execute the plan.
Next is agility. The team must move with speed and flexibility. According to Harvard Business Review 2015, ‘a lack of agility is a major obstacle to effective execution among the companies we have studied’. As circumstances and market environments change the plan needs to be constantly checked for validity. A question I like to ask is ‘what have you learned in the last 30 days that effects the future of your company?’ No one can tell the future. Blind adherence to the plan is just as dangerous as being cavalier about it.
And last, but not the least, having little or no accountability. Are your people living up to their commitments and producing the results anticipated in the plan? This goes to the core of effective execution. What’s expected gets inspected and people will be motivated to follow through on their commitments. A lack of inspection is one of the major reasons plans fail or drift along without any sense of urgency. The Macquarie Dictionary defines commitment as ‘the extent to which we will inconvenience ourselves to accomplish something’. This tends to be a consequence of motivation.
Follow-up is the most potent tool at a manager’s (and leader’s) disposal. This is how people are held accountable. Some of the reasons follow-up does not happen include: indifference, laziness, ignorance (don’t know how to do it) and stupidity. Yes, if you know how to but you don’t, then it is stupidity.
The psychology of the follow-up process clarifies why it is such a sensible thing to do if we wish to achieve results. Firstly, follow-up is not a performance review. Rather it is a meaningful dialogue that presents an opportunity for praise and or joint problem solving. This engenders trust between manager and team member. The process is meaningful, critical, natural, intentional, perpetual, flexible and substantial. Without it, the message you send is ‘results don’t really matter’.
In Jim Collins book Great by Choice, he discussed the 20 Mile March. Using the example of the race to the South Pole between Scott and Amundsen, he explored their different tactics. Amundsen succeeded and Scott and his team perished. The main difference was that Amundsen adhered to a regimen of consistent progress – not too much, not too little. Amundsen understood that consistency is the best friend of the successful as is the habit of moving forward every day. He focused on achieving daily and weekly goals and eventually the prize was theirs. The lives of Amundsen’s team depended on how well he managed the execution of the plan. He was an outstanding leader and manager.
In his book, Collins detailed the elements of a good 20-mile march:
- Clear performance markers
- Self-imposed constraints
- Appropriate to the enterprise [or individual]
- Largely within your control
- A proper time-frame — long enough to manage, yet short enough to have teeth
- Designed and self-imposed by the enterprise [or individual]
- Achieved with high consistency
To paraphrase Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign slogan ‘It’s the economy, stupid’ we can say ‘It’s the execution, stupid’. Execution fails due to poor follow-up. Follow-up is a discipline. The nature of a discipline is that it can be practiced and mastered over time.