by Stephanie Owen – Principal Consultant, Strategy2Life
There is a certain sense of elation a leader gets when a new strategy is launched, the “troops” have been briefed, and the energy around the place becomes palpable, when everyone seems to have a sense of where they need to be going, perhaps for the first time in a long while.
Unfortunately, over a period of weeks and months, the leader’s elation often turns into impatience, and then even panic and despair, when nothing seems to be happening. How do you, as leader, know whether “nothing” is actually the quiet buzz of activity and progress, or whether “nothing” is really “nothing”? How do you know whether your people are setting themselves up for success, and how do you accelerate strategy execution?
1. Be sceptical about apparent early progress
In a May 2010 article in the Harvard Business Review, Jocelyn Davis and Tom Atkinson refer to their study conducted by with the Economist Intelligence Unit of 343 businesses, which found that “companies that embraced initiatives and chose to go, go, go… ended up with lower sales and operating profits than those that paused at key moments to make sure they were on the right track”. Successful companies, the authors found, thought differently about what “fast” and “slow” meant, and made a distinction between what the authors refer to as “strategic speed” – reducing the time it takes to deliver value (or achieve strategic outcomes) – and “operational speed” – moving quickly.
In my own experience running strategic initiatives, I often see managers mistake operational speed for strategic speed when they try to use their “business-as-usual” (BAU) mode of operating in a strategy execution environment.
In BAU mode, most managers deal with a myriad of matters from day to day. Fast answers and fast routing of work to the right people earn managers the reputation for being “responsive”.
When trying to execute strategy, this style of operating often sees managers jumping straight into “doing” before planning, trying to do too many things at once, and failing to take the time to consider and manage the “people” aspects of the new strategy. Leaders who are experienced in strategy execution would immediately see these as danger signs rather than progress. Scepticism should also be exercised over detailed plans that appear too quickly: anyone can sit in front of a computer and type up a plan, but a plan without buy-in and commitment is no more than a pipe dream.
2. Allocate sufficient resources
Although tempting, quick, and seemingly logical, it is generally not a good idea to try to execute strategy by getting people already busy with BAU to take on extra project work. It is true that the people who own the strategy ought to own the execution too. On the other hand, “owning” is not the same as “doing”, and it is rare that a BAU person would have both the time and the skillset build tomorrow’s organisation at the same time as running today’s business. If you see your managers running around madly hiring, begging and borrowing resources to either backfill key BAU people, or to bring in new skillsets to deliver the strategic initiative, it is generally a good sign.
3. Get “quick wins”
As the initial excitement of the strategy launch wears off, people make up their minds about whether this particular strategy is the latest “flavour of the month” which can be safely ignored. Detractors may go further and use any opportunity to create distractions or put obstacles in the way of success. The best way to avert disaster in the early stages of a strategy implementation is to create early successes, or “quick wins”. Quick wins are small initiatives that are relatively easy to implement, but address particular “pain points” that are broadly felt within the organisation. Typical examples include improving reports from existing systems (relative to the lengthy task of replacing the systems themselves), streamlining a well-known process bottleneck, and improving training and communication about how a particular process works.
Quick wins help overcome organisational inertia, build support for the strategy, and ideally allow learning to take place and ideas to be tested with relatively low risk.
4. Accelerate decision-making
A new strategy requires decisions to be made. Moreover, any initiative worthy of the name “strategic” is bound to involve decisions made by a number of key managers and executives from a number of different areas, including those outside your own. Therefore, the speed and quality of managerial decision-making is a major determinant of the speed of strategy execution.
To find out how well your organisation stacks up, you can try this exercise: ask several experienced project managers in your organisation how long they budget for quality decision making in their projects (ie, to obtain approval from the right number of people to proceed in a particular direction). Then compare this with how long they would budget for the actual “build” (elapsed time to implement the particular solution). In my experience, depending on the organisation and how “strategic” the decision is, it can sometimes take twice as long (or more) to obtain a decision to do something, than the time taken to actually do it. This means that leaders who focus on the speed of execution cannot afford to ignore the speed of decision-making.
Another enemy of speedy execution is the ugly cousin of slow decision-making: indecision. It is relatively easy to spot the form of indecision whereby a clearly-defined decision is deferred endlessly. Harder to identify, but more insidious, is “indecision by default” – for example, too many initiatives to be happening concurrently without proper prioritisation and scoping. The result is insufficient management attention and resourcing applied to each initiative, or initiatives overlapping and tripping over one another. When more of your managers’ time seems to be involved in discussions over who does what than actually doing it, this is a danger sign that shouldn’t be ignored.
5. Review direction and progress at regular intervals
All initiatives encounter roadblocks and difficulties. When used by experienced and competent execution managers, issues, risks and status indicators are like warning lights on a navigation dashboard. Yet some management teams treat issues, risks or adverse status indicators (“red” or “amber” traffic lights) as signs of weakness or even incompetence. They would rather avoid bad news and travel with the project equivalent of non-functioning vehicle warning systems. No wonder they are often caught by surprise when initiatives fail, and often blame project managers for the failures – not dissimilar to blaming the car for a car accident.
Leaders who are great at strategy execution take status reports and warnings as signs that course correction might be required, and work with the initiative owners or managers to determine the appropriate actions to get back on track. Most of the time, it may simply mean increasing resources or accepting delays. At times, however, difficult decisions may be needed – for example, the original objectives or scope may need to be modified, timelines changed, political obstacles removed, or personnel issues addressed. The earlier and speedier these tough decisions are made, the better and faster the strategy can be executed.
Strategy that is implemented properly and swiftly is more likely to succeed. According to Robert H. Miles (“Accelerating Corporate Transformations (Don’t Lose Your Nerve!)”, Harvard Business Review January 2010), CEOs who have overseen a corporate transformation are likely say “we should have – could have – moved faster” when asked what could could have been done differently. However, not all speed is equal, and the best levers to shift gears are not always the first that come to mind, or those that are easiest to change. By focusing on setting yourself up for success, allocating sufficient resources, getting quick wins, speeding up decision-making and reviewing progress, a leader can increase the chances of speedy, and successful, strategy execution.