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Bridging the execution gap. Learn from teams who have achieved success.

Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare.

Japanese Proverb.

No one individual can execute a strategic plan, it must be a team effort if success is to be achieved. Nathan Wiita, and Orla Leonard decided to look at how the most successful teams bridge the execution gap. The gap between what the strategic plan says what needs to be done, compared with what actually gets done. What differentiates teams that achieve success from teams that fail to execute? How do they spend their time? What critical behaviors do they engage in that enables them to attain their goals. The researchers found 4 behaviors that lead to success.

  1. Commit to an identity. The successful organizations were committed to a common identity which was achieved by a shared understanding of its value proposition and the distinctive capabilities. These are also known as core competencies an idea developed by Gary Hamel and C. K. Prahalad in 1990. To learn more about core competencies listen to my show on this subject. To listen to the first segment, click here. The idea is that a business should focus on what it is good at and go for it. Activities that do not fit as core competencies should be outsourced. This will allow you to break your strategy down to clear actionable items that can be communicated throughout the organization.
  2. Translate the strategy into everyday processes and capabilities. This includes establishing financial and operational metrics so that goals are aligned with overall strategy. Resources are allocated appropriately; progress is measured and reviewed. Aligning the businesses day to day activities with the strategic plan ensures that employees ae aware of what is important for the business. This can be reinforced by tracking and publishing Key Performance Indicators (KPI). A further step in successful execution of the plan is to be agile when the needs of the business change. Organizations that exhibit this behavior make the strategic plan a living document rather than a gather of dust.
  3.  Concentrate on unique cultural factors that fuel success. This is means building on your company’s strengths rather than trying drive change programs based on fixing gaps or weaknesses.  To facilitate this, it is helpful to have a mission statement that serves as a guide to how resources may be allocated. Nike’s mission statement is: Our mission is what drives us to do everything possible to expand human potential. We do that by creating ground-breaking sport innovations, by making our products more sustainably, by building a creative and diverse global team and by making a positive impact in communities where we live and work.  This highlights resources should be allocated to innovation, sustainability, diversity and the community.  By setting up communication channels top performing organizations ensure barriers to execution are identified so they may be reduced or eliminated.
  4. Shape the future: Companies that excel at execution find the time planning – setting a direction for their organization, working on their vision and, of course, their strategy. They are faster to respond the changes in the business environment. The ability to identify trends earlier is a great asset. In “The Startup Playbook” by David S Kidder he writes about Reid Hoffman the founder of LinkedIn identifying the need for a social network for business people. He was so early that he had trouble raising funds.

Based on HBR article “How the most successful teams bridge the strategy-execution gap. Nanthan Wiita and Orla Leonard, November 2017

Turning Strategy into Results – Simplicity and Flexibility are key.

Strategies can be complex but to be implemented simple and flexible guidelines are needed. Guidelines that can be well understood by the majority of your employees.

The often cited advice to leaders is to distill the companies into a few core ideas. The target customers, (the who), the value proposition (what) and how to deliver, sell and distribute the products or services (the how).  Sounds great but probably only works in very focused companies. A low cost regional airline would be an example – they provide only one type of service to a particular customer type.

But what if your business is more complicated? Serving multiple customers with a range of products with different distribution channels. Develop strategic priorities. This involves identifying the key actions the company must take to execute the strategy over the medium term. These should be forward looking and action orientated, focusing on what is most important to the organizations success. These priorities need to balance guidance with flexibility. Some ideas that can help you develop strategic priorities that are easily communicated include:

  1. Limit the number of strategic priorities to five or less. This will make your priorities better understood, easier to remember and focus your employee’s attention on what is important.
  2. Focus on mid term objectives. Strategic priorities are a bridge between your company’s long term goals and short term operating plans. A rule of thumb to keep in mind is “three to five in three to five”. Three to five strategic priorities that can be accomplished in three to five years. Craft these carefully. If you announce three to five year priorities and then change them one year later your employees will dismiss them as flavor of the month and ignore future strategic priorities.
  3. Pull towards the future. Priorities should outline how your company will create and capture value in the future, not how it did it in the past. Employees will naturally gravitate to the familiar, so innovation and change need constant attention.
  4. Make the hard calls. In an organization of any size there will be dozens or more competing and conflicting priorities. Deciding on which priorities are the ones the company is going to focus on will disappoint some people whose idea were not selected.
  5. Ensure that the priorities provide concrete guidance. Too often priorities are so vague it is impossible to guess the industry the company is operating in, let alone the name of the company itself. Take these five imperatives from a very well-known company.
    1. Focus on customers’ needs and wants
    1. Be an industry leader
    1. Engage our team members
    1. Provide a return for our investors
    1. Look to the future.

As an employee can any of these, except maybe the first one, help you focus on what’s important. Which company is it, could be anyone, right?

Avoid using numbers when setting priorities. Numbers quantify where the company wants to end up, but not how it is going to get there.

  • Align the top team. It is only too common for there to be disagreement among the top execs on what are the companies most important strategies. Executing strategies requires working across company boundaries. Imagine the confusion among employees working on a new product launch hear different priorities from the leader of marketing compared to what the sales leader has told them.

Executing strategies in not easy, that is why most strategic plans fail to meet their objectives. To achieve success your company needs the right culture, a culture of execution and clear easily understood communication of what is most important for success.

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