“Good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion.” — Jack Welch
I had the pleasure to co-write this piece with Pierre-Etienne Bost, consultant and executive coach, co-founder All Leaders Initiative and Sebastian Mueller co-founder and COO of MING Labs, a business design consulting firm.
Strategic delivery is more of a science than it is an art. Some initiatives will be easy to implement and require little resources. Some will be heavier and require internal or external collaboration. Success isn’t guaranteed and requires high focus, proper organization as well as methods to engage teams, continuously learn, and improve execution effectiveness. After all the hard work of making decisions, the worst that could happen is teams getting distracted and continuing business as usual or move onto new things. Fortunately, there are levers and methods to help any organization substantially improve their execution effectiveness.
67% of strategies do fail because of poor execution. So — while your strategy is defined — still most of the value remains to be extracted and delivered. Bridges Business Consultancy Int. survey
Levers To Improve Your Strategic Execution
If you have taken the Scan, chances you score 100 are very limited. There are always things to improve. Let’s first go through the key levers that will bring a significant positive impact on your ability to deliver.
Focus — Less Is More
The concept is simple to comprehend. Practice shows that lack of focus is a major challenge when it comes to execution. How many cross-functional initiatives are running at the same time? 10? 20? 40? If this is anywhere above the first figure, chances are that your teams are struggling to deliver efficiently because their attention is diluted.
With that also comes the changes in priority. In my experience, constant change in priority is a recurring complaint from coworkers in many organizations.
“Really Successful People Say No To Almost Everything” — Warren Buffet
With 3 to 5 top initiatives that are prioritized above all the rest, your teams will spend less time wondering what is the right thing to work on, and more time co-delivering excellence. In the second part of the article, we’ll see that Portfolio Management and OKR can be ways to help you reach that situation.
Engagement — Strategic Execution Is Not Story Of A Few…
In many organizations I have worked with I noticed the delivery of strategic initiatives being the responsibility of a very small portion of the coworkers. Others being pulled for the business as usual duties. That’s where the issue starts. And this for mainly three reasons.
- First, if only a few resources work on your strategic initiatives, they will progress in a slow fashion.
- Secondly, there will be a recurring conflict of priorities and resources between the day-to-day and the strategic bets. This will slow your progress even more but also reduce engagement and motivation to push the new strategy forward.
- Finally, there is a risk to create a split across employees between those feeling part of the (bright) future, and those feeling left to the current (less-worthy) matters. Instead, you would like your vision to be shared and endorsed by everyone, whatever her/his role and task may be, for the sake of collective efficiency.
“You’ve got to eat while you dream. You’ve got to deliver on short-range commitments, while you develop a long-range strategy and vision and implement it. The success of doing both. Walking and chewing gum if you will.” — Jack Welch
So yes, delivering the strategy shall be the story of many, if not all. They are various ways to do that. We referred to the organization above. Fortunately, there are proven methods to improve coworkers’ engagement in strategic execution. There is also a big opportunity in the way you lead this change and the culture you foster.
Targeted Approach — Not Every Strategic Initiative Shall Be Handled The Same Way
Once you have the portfolio you want to start with, your first consideration needs to be around execution planning. There is no one only and best way to prepare for execution. The risk- and complexity-profile of the initiatives you identified and selected will strongly determine how to properly organize yourself.
The low-risk, low-complexity initiatives, which you have likely identified as low-hanging fruits, can move into execution swiftly. Find the right owner for the action and ensure that they are aligned with the expected impact and outcome.
For the more risky and more complex initiatives, taking a discovery-driven approach will allow you to de-risk them quickly. You can leverage methodologies borrowed from Design Thinking and Lean Start-Up, which will help you understand the intended target audience better and frame the problem well. This also helps to comprehend the Problem Space deeply. Iterative prototype and test cycles lead to quickly learning about the Solution Space. Bring those together, and you are very quickly reducing Market Risk, Business Risk, and Technology Risk — ticking off the boxes of Desirability, Feasibility, and Viability.
Learning and Agile mindset
Once appropriately de-risked, more complex initiatives should be tackled with an Agile mindset, breaking the approach to the problem down into small incremental solution steps, and getting the first MVP out quickly. This allows you to be quick to solve the problem fundamentally, iterate on that solution and aim for more significant gains over time.
The key to all of this is a vigorous learning mindset. The future is extremely uncertain, ambiguous, and complex. We act under highly imperfect information. From every initiative you run, you want to get as much learning as possible into your organization, to adjust quickly.
Therefore, regular reviews and meetings that might have happened annually or quarterly should now occur monthly. Regular monthly touchpoints should now be weekly. This is about increasing the metabolism of your organization and, therefore, the flow of information and learning.
Finding (and adapting regularly) your operating rhythm will help you keep up with the evolutions and requirements of your environment. And this shall also be reflected in your communication flows.
Everything that does or does not work out is an essential piece of information.
The organization needs to have this signal available to adjust all the other activities. This is the only way to learn and iterate yourself out of crisis mode and into opportunity mode.
Not all areas of the business are equal though and some are very sensitive and do not allow errors (airplane safety for example). To foster a learning and experimentation mindset, teams need to know what can be part of such an exploratory approach and what remains in a sensitive territory. This can be done by bringing clarity in terms of errors or failures typology. And mind that ensuring such clarity is an infinite game…
Implementing Agile is not enough as such. All Leaders Initiative reflects on that when they deep dive on one often missing brick in agile execution: the consciousness and mastery of interpersonal stakes. You can read about it here.
The Right Organization To Set A High Performing Execution
More than key levers, the key success factors of the delivery are the teams. Finding ways to collaborate, have dialogue, and engage better will be the driving change to a more effective execution. Let’s go through some methods and best practices.
Adjust Your Organization To Bring Better Performance And Alignment
In practice, Portfolio Management practice allows teams to consolidate and incubate strategic ideas in a transparent, structured, and rationalized way as well as to monitor and support progress until delivery. This will allow the leadership team to have visibility and continuous dialogue about the execution of these initiatives.
If you don’t have a Portfolio Management organization yet, you might want to consider it. For smaller organizations, having one person in charge of the reporting and monitoring will already make a big difference.
OKR — A Method For The Teams To Focus On What Matters
If you want to encourage cross-department collaboration, agility as well as a result-driven and pro-active culture, you might want to explore management strategy methods such as OKR. OKR stands for Objectives and Key Results. It is an innovative and effective way to engage teams in strategy execution through collaborative goal-setting and delivery.
Used by Google, Linkedin, GoPro, and many of the top innovative companies worldwide, this method has proven to be very helpful to get teams active and engaged with the company’s purpose and strategic direction and become more outcome-driven.
Besides, as it promotes a culture of transparency, OKR enables early visibility on redundant efforts. This saves significant time and money. This can work for very large organizations as well as start-ups — many are already using it in the Silicon Valley but also more and more across continents. A lot more can be said about OKR framework and its benefits. To get started with the essence of it, I advise watching this 10m TED Talk by John Doer, early investor at Google and source of the OKR spread. And you can check out the medium account of Felipe Castro, global OKR evangelist, and who also happens to have introduced me to OKR while I was implementing it at my previous company.
Long-term goals establish direction and define success. Short-term goals impact daily behavior.
OKR also empowers your organization to deliver with continuous learning and agile mindset. Beyond the traditional 3-5 years strategic plan, having an iterative review of the strategic focus for the next 3 to 6 months will allow teams to have a sharp focus on where it matters most and the organization to learn and adapt based on what happened in the previous cycle. This echoes what we mentioned above about finding the most appropriate operating rhythm.
A Culture Of Purpose And Safety
Purpose has always been a key motivation and engagement driver for coworkers, customers, and partners. Millennials who have a strong connection to the purpose of their organization are 5.3 times more likely to stay. PWC Study. And engagement translates into performance.
EY Global Leadership Forecast confirms that purposeful companies outperform the stock market by 42%.
In these unprecedented times where our lives are shaken and the future is somewhat uncertain, the notion of purpose takes yet another dimension. Reaching the financial objectives becomes less of a priority for individuals who are facing challenges of another magnitude. In times of change, teams are more driven by a meaningful direction and by a human leadership. Hubert Joly confirms this perspective when he explains his experience going through similar situations as former CEO of Best Buy and Carlson here
Another element that is instrumental to make coworkers feel empowered is the feeling of safety. It is widely recognized that a climate of psychological safety is very much associated with the possibility to speak up and the ability to listen.
More than a feeling, it is even a culture. And the ability to develop and maintain a genuine Culture of Safety is also essential to maximize your execution effectiveness. Spoiler alert: it’s not just about risk management. It usefully draws from both high-reliability industries return on experience — like the nuclear industry - and the latest findings in leadership research, and specifically the importance of psychological safety.
In a more formalized manner, Culture of Safety encompasses all the systems, behaviors, and attitudes allowing to optimize human capital in handling vital risks for the organization.
So, a well-implemented culture of safety does bring various benefits:
- it helps anticipate crises and risk thanks to a culture of resilience and sustainable thinking
- It optimizes value creation through short-term adaptability, creativity, and global performance perspective. More info on the topic here by All Leaders Initiative
Culture of Safety isn’t a one-off. Because of its importance and impact, this is a continuous process that sits at the core of a global and sustainable performance.
Want to know more about psychological safety in particular? Listen to Amy Edmondson’s podcast and check her latest book: The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth.
To me, this article by Gary Pisano in Harvard Business Review is what summarizes what a leader could target to have a hyper-effective Innovation And Delivery Culture very well. Article Highlights:
- Tolerance to Failure but No Tolerance to Incompetence
- Willingness to Experiment but High Discipline
- Psychologically Safe but Brutally Candid
- Collaboration with Individual Accountability
- Flat but Strong Leadership
Wondering what shall be the next step? I advise starting with an assessment of your strategic effectiveness and see from there. For a first quick Scan, you can click here.
This closes a 4 episodes series on how to turn around your business in these unexpected times. I sincerely hope you found this useful and that you’ll find opportunities for your company and teams. In that context, I wish the few actions and steps put together here can be of help. Happy to deep dive into any of them in another post or in private.
- Ep. 1- First Things First In Times of Crisis. About the key urgent actions to take when hit by a crisis and some best practices to help set everyone’s mindset for what is to come.
- Ep. 2- 6 Dimensions To Evaluate Your Strategic Options. Some information and tools to assess the latest environmental trends put together with a simple method to perform a strategic diagnosis.
- Ep. 3- Better Strategizing - The Science of Making Good Bets. About the ways to leverage all the information you gathered to make the best possible decisions for a way forward for your business.
And this was the ep. 4 about how to put your strategy in motion, engage all your coworkers and build a resilient organization and culture for a brighter future.