At some point, the development of strategy needs to (or at least should) turn to the execution of strategy. The point of having a strategic plan is not to simply go away on a retreat, think great thoughts, write them down, and have the resulting document gather dust on a shelf. Strategy is about defining the change that is required to move to an organization’s desired future, and then doing the heavy lifting of getting there.
The concept of ‘strategy execution’ is getting a lot of press lately. Larry Bossidy, the former CEO of Allied Signal, started the trend off with the publication of his book, Execution, back in 2002. The term has become progressively more popular since. The cover of this month’s Harvard Business Review fully embraces a focus on making strategy work. The sub-head: “How to Avoid the Traps and Execute Brilliantly.”
Particularly noteworthy in this issue is an article by Donald Sull, Rebecca Holmes and Charles Sull. “Why Strategy Execution Unravels – and What To Do About It” theoretically tackles the challenge of strategy execution head on. Except, sadly, it really doesn’t. It’s well written, throws lots of buzz words around and theoretically builds upon research. And yet, it is largely founded on a false premise.
An early quote in the article makes the assertion that little has been written about strategy execution. Specifically, they say that, “Books and articles on strategy outnumber those on execution by an order of magnitude. And what little has been written on execution tends to focus on tactics or generalize from a single case.” Which is, frankly, patently absurd. There is a great deal written about the execution of strategy. The challenge is, it’s not necessarily neatly filed under the term ‘strategy execution.’
For starters, a lot of the strategy literature actually does talk about not just defining strategy, but also getting it done. Of particular note, Henry Mintzberg makes the argument that strategy is what actually *does* get done, rather than what gets planned. A great deal more discussion of execution is in the literature of portfolio management. And in that of product development. And innovation. In particular, there is a vast amount of literature about managing strategy execution under the label of ‘project management.’ Because that, frankly, is what strategy execution is: managing projects.
Interestingly, the authors don’t talk about project management. There are a couple of tangential references, to “corporate project management offices” and “Gantt charts.” But overall, the idea that “initiatives” are actually “projects” gets very little play. What is described under the label of “best practices” are tools like “management by objectives,” “balanced scorecards,” “performance management,” “cross-functional committees” and “service level agreements.” These are not the tools of getting projects delivered; they are the tools of operations management. In other words, what the authors are focussing on as tools for changing the business are the ones that are normally applied to running the business.
Strategy equals change. Projects are what allow the change that strategy contemplates to actually be delivered. What is important and necessary is defining the projects (or initiatives, if you prefer that term) that are required for success. This means translating the objectives of the strategic plan into concrete outcomes that need to be delivered. It means providing the focus, resources and attention to them that will allow them to succeed. And it means keeping up the discipline of following through on what you have committed to.
That’s not to say that wholesale adoption of project management as currently defined is the answer to every organization’s strategy problems. There is a lot in formally defined project that emphasizes bureaucracy, templates and forms, and that presumes projects can be perfectly planned and precisely controlled. In this, the authors of the article are absolutely correct: change *will* occur. We need management approaches that allow us to adapt and evolve, while still staying clear about the outcome we are trying to deliver and the objective we are trying to meet.
Flexible implementation of strategy means accepting a number of fundamental truths:
- The projects that we start with are not necessarily the projects that we will finish with. We will need to adapt and evolve along the way, as we learn what is possible and discover what is not practical.
- Some projects will fail. That’s not a sign of poor execution, it is simply a reflection of reality. Never failing is a sign that a person, and an organization, is playing it too safe. If the strategy embodies stretch goals, some of the projects it initiates are going to struggle. Some will die. Success comes from recognizing this, and making appropriate decisions to cancel and kill projects, not to stubbornly sustain them.
- Sponsorship in the delivery of strategy is critical. You cannot simply hand off responsibility for the project and walk away. The project will require attention, support, advocacy and timely decision making. Leaders have to lead, and that means getting involved and staying involved.
- Successful deliver is not about micromanagement. Judgement, flexibility, and adaptability are as important to the successful delivery of complex projects as a good initial plan and a reasonable approach to management. Plans need to reflect guidance and direction, not rigid intent. Delivery needs to allow for adaptation, not disciplined execution and tight control. Success requires successful project leadership, not the benign neglect of operational managers attending to issues off the corner of their desk.
One of the things that the authors identify that is absolutely correct is their discussion of the “alignment trap.” When executing strategy stalls or struggles, the typical response is for senior management to increase alignment; in essence, to tighten the screws, ramp up oversight and control more closely. This results in a downward spiral, where performance suffers more, controls are further increased, and no progress gets made forward. The answer to challenge on complex projects is not more control; it is latitude to exercise judgement, situational leadership and adaptive thinking.
Strategy execution is not new. There is very little sexy about it. It involves a great deal of work. But it’s not that there hasn’t been a great deal written about strategy execution; there has. We know a great deal about how to execute strategy. The problem is simply that we don’t do it.