The old cliché, “What gets measured get done” and “if you can measure it, you can manage it” speak to the strategic principles underpinning execution management. Measuring it gives a leader the insight needed to stay on course to achieve objectives. Once the leader has developed the strategy’s key performance measures (KPI), developed a cadence of review, discussion and fine-tuning to promote progress toward achievement of the strategic objectives, business leaders need discipline for execution.
Peter Drucker profoundly said that while Strategy is a commodity, Execution is an art. The painstaking notion to rethinking strategy execution is the discipline in ensuring the organisation sets its business toward a specific outcome and achievement. Historically speaking, businesses and organisations that execute well and perform at high levels are in a minority. However, if today’s businesses are ever to get things done fast with the team, leaders must be able to help their employees navigate change effectively as well as take ownership of and establish strategic processes with precision and foresight.
In this era when each businesses is forced to rethink their strategy every now and then as a result of emerging technologies and fast-changing customer behaviour, understanding the order in which the strategic roadmap for orchestrating how an outcome should evolve is becoming an increasingly difficult question; and that is why it calls for an execution management rethink.
Experience seems to indicate that organisations and managers often fall into the trap of systems and processes being an end in themselves, rather than means to an end. However, the development for managerial persistence with exploitation that leads to a ‘business-as-usual’ approach in strategising, despite evidence that such persistence invariably leads to organisational crisis or failure, must be given a critical look-over.
Strategy execution is not just the path to implementing a strategy. It is a question of implementing processes, aligning people to them and measuring success along the way. The unending commitment to innovation that plays a significant role in how effectively businesses translate their strategies into actionable operating models defines the new norm for business transformation and sustainable growth.
While the debate on what seems critical in execution management goes on, organisations are likely to shed light on the possibilities and challenges which underpin the execution of a certain strategy.
That notwithstanding, as seen in today’s business ecosystem, the gap between strategic vision and execution is closing in terms of time, and fast execution of strategies is becoming an important growth lever. As such, identifying the discipline-approaches and the fastest path to an execution outcome should fall in the arena of an execution roadmap that is set to win.
Why Discipline in Execution?
Performance cannot be achieved without discipline. Here, it is not the strategy that is disciplined, but rather its execution. Disciplines like strategy, leadership development and innovation are the critical aspects of being at the helm of a successful business. As intimated by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan, the ultimate difference between a successful company or organisation and its competitors lies in its ability to execute.
However, building the concept of Discipline in Executing the Strategic agenda remains pivotal to successful implementation, which is dependent on key stages in adopting the complex approach to follow. For instance, if the pattern of these key stages is not followed, or the entire process deployed all the way through to completion are not followed, effectiveness of the whole approach is undermined. Besides, the term ‘discipline’ is often wrongly perceived – as many organisations interpret it as ‘authority’. By definition, ‘discipline’ refers to all the rules of conduct applying to strategic processes guiding the group and implementation for the achievement of strategic objectives or goals.
How do organisations escape ‘Business as Usual’?
Rethinking execution management as a business is a critical function to have a forward-looking plan achieve continued success. The ‘business as usual’ approach erodes performance; and the eventual development of dynamic capabilities equally may require curiosity, a burning desire to seek new experiences, knowledge and feedback-based learning to ensure great execution.
Meanwhile, what remains significant is the fact that organisations that thrive by perpetuating the status quo and a good embedment plan need to understand it before they can hope to change it. Strategic planning should replace strategic thinking that the need to escape ‘business as usual’ approaches in environments of emerging complexity and craft a conceptual frame for strategic thinking-driven and open strategizing that replaces ‘business as usual’ formulation-execution approach is crucial for sustainable growth and achievement. By this, finding and defining strategic challenges from ‘the outside’ and/or those relating to the link between the outside and inside of an organisation is the most important starting point of strategic action.
Focusing on Execution Planning and Management
As strategists focus on evolving issues primarily to address organisational growth and initiatives, what happens when reality refuses to follow the scenario upon which the strategy was crafted? As things which may be critical for the organisation’s viability do not always happen during the planning window when decision-makers pay heed to current developments, clock-based planning processes rarely permit re-evaluation of directionality until there is a crisis.
The most important discipline any organisation planning ought to have should be execution management of its strategic plans and objectives. Here, why Execution Management matters and why organisations ought to handle execution planning desirously as part of business processes must be the primary focus for business discussions.
This is because Execution is ‘the missing link between aspirations and results’, and as such making it happen is the business leader’s most important job. While failure in today’s business environment is often attributed to other causes, it is argued that the biggest obstacle to success is the absence of execution. By this, Bossidy and Charan emphasised that without a proper execution plan, breakthrough-thinking on managing change breaks down; and that execution should be seen as a discipline to learn, not merely the tactical side of business.
Execution being a challenge in every organisation means different strategies must apply to different execution approaches to realise organisational objectives. The unfortunate reality is that organisational approaches that seek to address or tackle strategic priorities have always featured an absence of execution plan and management. To address this is to adopt new ways of working and understanding.
The Discipline for Execution Management
Closing the strategy execution ‘gap’ has been elusive for many organisations, and for good reason. Though developing strategy is fun, engaging and energising, at some point strategy needs to be translated into action; and at this point strategy execution is where the hard work is. Execution requires patience, persistence and commitment to continuous, predictable and disciplined processes. There are many hurdles and roadblocks along the way, anyway.
Execution Management speaks to the function of all the process improvement methodologies that have come about from strategic directive. It ensures that, together, different technologies and smart workflow functionalities should be put into one intelligent Execution management system. Indeed, managing execution helps solve problems: like how to reduce working capital while still delivering on customer experience; or accelerating the top-line without driving up costs; and helping companies drive rapid action and achieve their desired outcomes in the face of disruption. Execution management work best through:
Too often, strategy is left implicit in the owners or business leader’s heads – and maybe shared with a few senior executives. As a result, no one really knows what the long-term direction of the business is, and/or why it was chosen. Employees are left in the dark without a clearly articulated road-map of the organisation’s destination. The strategy needs to be explicit – in a document that describes in as much detail as necessary past performance, current situation and future state. It’s less about numbers and more about a discussion of what choices are being made, and why they are important.
Getting buy-in to the strategy from those who will be tasked and accountable for execution is critical to success. Successful strategy management requires organisations to engage as many employees as possible in execution of the strategy. Leadership teams need to invite feedback, cause discussions and debate solutions. The more employees are involved in the strategy, the more they own the strategy.
Good communication is critical to executing the strategy. Although managers understand this, getting employee engagement with the strategy is challenging intellectually and emotionally. By experience, leaders tend to under-communicate and send inconsistent messages. A single memo is not enough, and a few speeches by CEOs and executives often fall short. Employees are usually bombarded with personal and business messages every day. The challenge is to break through that and make the strategy message stick. When you think you have communicated enough, do it again.
Leadership of the strategy management process starts at the top and requires the full commitment of all parties. There is no way this crucial task can be delegated. The business leader owns the Vision and is accountable to deliver on that promise. If the leader makes strategy management a priority, then everyone else will follow. This trickle-down behaviour remains a fact, not theory.
Strategy execution management requires a strong leadership of a continuous process that embodies these important disciplines. Given that a majority of companies fail to achieve the full value of their strategy, a great opportunity exists for organisations that embrace strategy management. Accordingly, leaders can know their commitments by the results they produce and not by what they say their commitments are. Unless a committed leader recognises and deals effectively with commitments, the organisation will never execute optimally. Managing execution is all about commitments. On the production line, in the budget office or as a part of the sales team, everything that is done requires the commitment and discipline of leaders to execute.
The case of Executing for Sustainable Growth
Strategy execution is usually a question that afflicts organisations in the middle of transformation efforts or innovation-driven initiatives, start-ups and new lines of business. However, the pandemic has rewritten that equation completely, and a commitment to innovation has become the only road to certainty of survival. In this light, figuring out a new plan that works is no longer enough. While disruptive strategies can help businesses recover their lost figures of growth, it is only when these disruptive strategies are paired with great execution that businesses can recover their growth. In some cases, exceptional execution that can reset the roadmap to determine where the business is headed is highly recommended. This means…
Building Appetite, Not Just Outputs
Once the status quo has been mapped, the most critical enabler of embedment is to use the identified levers to build appetite. The need to view the building of local appetite as more critical to the ultimate success of successful execution is desirous.
Investing time in understanding your value maps
Most businesses fail to understand how each step in their operating model drives value at the bottom line. For instance, how do improved operations affect revenue growth? What would be the impact of investing in improved customer service operations and not in something else?
Identifying capability and talent gaps
One of the biggest considerations when it comes to great execution is difference between the present state and the target state. For instance, a retailer’s vision of moving to a digital sales model from physical outlets will have to be accompanied by closing the digital talent gap, investing in and outsourcing some digital sales capabilities, and making reliable forecasts that bring predictability into the recovery of investments which the business has made in its move to digital sales.
Picking the right KPIs
Execution without measurement simply ensures that the wheels are set into motion without enabling the success owners to learn about what’s working and what’s not. Unmeasured, strategy implementation neither fails nor succeeds. As a result, measurement is about two key imperatives – knowing what to measure and setting up processes to report on the results.
Keys for successful strategy execution
Successful Strategy execution is something that people need to learn how to do, as it is not innate. Just as being a good leader takes time, effort, experience, outside support and learning, so does the ability to manage execution. And getting one leader on the team to consciously manage execution is just not enough. Organisations must learn to develop multiple leaders at every level – competent and able to deliver on the commitments they make to the organisation and their people. Leadership is a conscious choice, and so is managing execution
Meanwhile, to align strategy with demands and realities of the market, the organisation needs to focus its strategies on the right areas with key initiatives for achievement. The strategy must therefore be effectively translated to enable the creation of quality initiatives and the right goals to support it. Business leaders must ensure the strategy is supported by culture of the organisation, including its values. This is really overlooked as an accelerator of great execution, but a culturally-sound organisation always does what it says it will do.
Again, commitment to a continuous feedback culture and performance management platform must facilitate ongoing feedback on professional progress, growth and development opportunities as well. Committing to clarity between assessment and development should ensure managers make clear feedback targets and performance assessment, as well as cultivating new capabilities and skills for achieving same. Committing to transparency demands that performance reporting will align with management credibility and trustworthiness. Equally important is connecting and aligning feedback transparency to data, so as to reflect the core cultural values and practices of the organisation. In short, transparency is the foundation for a performance culture that can also literally be seen as a fair and equitable culture.
In conclusion, committing to performance management and KPI alignment discipline emphasises that there is no meaningful performance management without measurable KPIs. High-performance accountability requires clear and concise KPIs or key results. Therefore, linking performance management to KPIs or objectives and key results is the strategic duty and obligation of serious leadership; and also seeking to define and operate by the dictates of executional discipline toward sustainable growth and achievement.
Frank is the CEO and Strategic Partner of AQUABEV Investment and Discovery Consulting Group.
Dr. Obuobi is the Lead Consultant on Cx. Leadership & SME, Country Chair, Ladies in Business)