Many business leaders realize the need to make profound changes to their company strategy – but become incredibly frustrated when they roll out a new plan and don’t achieve the implementation traction they desire. Creating a winning strategy is just the first step. Most leaders struggle with business execution – the discipline of getting the right things done.
Economic events and major trend shifts in the competitive forces that shape industries mean that many companies (indeed whole industries) are having to completely rethink their business models and strategic plans. Unfortunately, many companies have let their strategic planning efforts lapse into a meaningless exercise in goal setting – getting better at doing more of the same – not realizing that the assumptions under which they are operating their businesses are no longer valid.
Suppose for the purposes of this article, that your company has gone through a rigorous and disciplined strategic thinking process. You have involved your key team members and obtained their input and buy in to the key strategic moves you need to make. You have crafted what appears to be an effective strategic plan to position your company for future success in the industry.
Unfortunately, what usually happens next is that your plan fades from view when everyone goes back to their day-to-day operations and fire-fighting. The strategic priorities specified in the plan get put on the back burner in favor of the urgent needs of the moment.
According to Harvard Business School professor Robert Kaplan, 90% of strategies fail due to poor execution . This is because companies are not very good at aligning their current day to day activities with their long-term strategic priorities.
Yes, you still need to manage your day to day operations, sell your products and services, look after your customers, handle problems and fight fires. That’s called “doing your job” - that’s table stakes. The secret to business execution is being able to simultaneously devote sufficient time and attention to implementing the key projects that will ensure your long-term strategic objectives will be achieved.
The Law of Three.
Studies on working memory show that people can only remember, pay attention to, and manipulate 3 or 4 pieces of complex information at most.
We have written previously about the need for leaders to be able to clearly articulate the top 3 things the company is working on. If you can’t do that, you are not leading well.
Paradoxically, you must learn to focus on less in order to achieve more! These findings have implications for effective strategic leadership. By this we mean that ideally everyone in your company should know:
- What are the top 3 strategic moves you need to make within the next 3-5 years in order to position the company for future success in your industry?
- What are the top 3 strategic projects the company is working on this quarter?
- What do I personally need to do this quarter in order to play my part?
Being able to get clearly communicate strategic priorities and align key staff to their achievement is rightly considered a major accomplishment for many companies. It is then usually left up to individual managers to ensure these actions are carried out each quarter.
At RESULTS.com, our studies of highly effective companies – those who are true masters of business execution, reveal that one or more of these additional success habits are incorporated to drive business execution excellence:
Effective leaders ask their direct reports every week, “What is the #1 thing you are going to get done this week that will move your area of the business forward?”
The intention is for each team member to publicly articulate their #1 task for the week. These are not ‘business as usual’ tasks that are done by the person every week as part of the normal course of business. Rather, this is one specific action to move their area of the business forward in relation to the company’s quarterly priorities.
This is not micro-managing either. It is training people to prioritize and focus on achieving what is strategically important every week – as well as just ‘doing their job’.
Each person’s “1 Thing” is documented publicly, and staff are held accountable for having carried out this action by the next subsequent weekly team meeting.
These tools break strategic plans down into quarterly goals and weekly tasks for staff to check off when they are done. Leaders can now feel more in control of where their business is going when they can see in ‘real time’ what their people are working on and how they are tracking. This frees business leaders to focus on supporting their people, rather than hounding them to get things done.
Even leaders need to be held accountable for the overall strategic execution of the company. External parties (consultants, coaches, board members) are usually better able to challenge the leader’s assumptions, present alternative options and play devil’s advocate – more so than the leader’s colleagues and subordinates are. This can help leaders to better think through the implications of their strategic decisions.
Too often leaders can fall into the trap of ‘chasing butterflies’ and continually be changing direction. Many leaders benefit from having an external, objective 3rd party they can confide in – someone who will push and guide them, as well as deliver brutally honest feedback.
Being accountable to someone else for business execution greatly increases the likelihood of getting things done!
This article is derived from a previous RESULTS.com article that appeared in The Economist – executive briefing section.
 (R. Kaplan and D. Norton, Harvard Business School Press, The Strategy-Focused Organization, 2001)
Photo credit: Sean Carpenter