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Strategy and Execution Failure

Posted by Tozer, Jeremy at Thursday, 12/06/2012 11:47 am
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2.8 from 44 votes

Strategy articulates a decision to do ‘work’ (to complete an organizational-level task, or achieve a defined end-state and objectives), together with the reason for doing that (purpose, which gives meaning to the work for the people involved). It provides coherence between actual capability and the objectives that have been defined, and addresses in outline how the strategic objectives will be achieved, which includes exploiting your centre of gravity. It provides a rationale and framework for operational and tactical actions.

In this respect, strategy is a statement of ‘higher intent’ but is not a detailed plan in itself. A strategic plan, may outline the preferred course of action at the outset of implementing the strategy – provide direction – but this will inevitably evolve. If planned in detail as far ahead as the end state, an awful lot of planning time and effort will be wasted for reasons explained below.

In many organizations, there is a discontinuity (or even a chasm) between ‘strategy’ and ‘execution’, between desired and delivered performance and results. This performance gap is actually the result of the four gaps caused by internal ‘friction’:

1. There is a gap that results from using imperfect information and/or an imperfect decision-making process. Information may be imperfect because situations are dynamic, uncertain and complex, and there is an excess of information quantity and a lack of information quality. This imperfect information may then be used in an imperfect and/or irrational decision-making process in ‘undisciplined’ organizations which fails to ask the right questions and correctly interpret the information.

2. Similar to one above, imperfect information and/or an imperfect detailed (action) planning process - in some organizations, decision-making is thought of as planning with no distinction between what happens in the decision-making process (eg the clarification of aim, objectives, purpose, outline plan options and the selection of one option), and in detailed planning (the conversion of the selected option into a workable plan).

3. There is a gap that results from the imperfect communication and/or the imperfect interpretation of the plan as communicated.

4. There is the gap between desired actions, and the actual actions of people at the front line. Since the actual actions of people are what lead to organizational outcomes and results, if there is a difference between actual and desired actions (especially in a dynamic environment), it is not surprising that there will be a gap between actual and desired results.

The key point is that too many strategies do not actually provide clear direction, nor do leaders (at any level) have at their disposal a mechanism for translating ‘higher intent’ into genuine understanding – meaningful effects, objectives and priorities for their work. The result is that new initiatives and new work streams are piled on top of pre-existing workloads with no sense of priority, precious time is wasted in an endless stream of meetings which attempt to solve both new and pre-existing problems related to this combined activity. These meetings, in turn, create even more work for people.

This is compounded with the fact that when priorities are unclear for people, they default to work defined by past habit, personal interest, personal gain and/or personal preference. The net result is the sense of ‘wading through treacle’:
· an inability to build momentum and increase the tempo of operations;
· a waste of time, emotional energy and other resources invested in work that, while it may be well executed in itself, is unaligned to the bigger organizational picture;
· the burnout of people;
· a sluggish and cumbersome organization, which is not sufficiently agile to thrive and survive in the modern world.

The ability to solve problems and make decisions, produce plans and involve and brief those involved in the process (creating 'clarity', alignment and engagement) and then track outputs are fundamental to effective leadership — at all levels. So the design of the processes used in these key leadership functions of decision-making, planning and briefing are critical. These leadership processes will in practice include two concurrent and parallel processes: the conceptual or thought process – the steps that are followed in making a decision, producing a plan or briefing people, and the social process (or emotional intelligence) with which the conceptual process is applied.

The most effective leadership processes will:
· be common to leaders at all levels – the same processes may be applied at different levels of complexity and responsibility;
· by focusing on ‘effects and outcomes’, be designed to ensure the dynamic alignment of all activity with ‘the higher intent’ and adjustment of plans in rapidly changing circumstances;
· delegate decision-making authority to the lowest level at which capability exists;
· prioritise activity (which includes assessing all current and new activity under the headings of stop, start or continue, internally or outsourced);
· integrate the leadership structure of the organization;
· engage the workforce involved in the ‘doing’;
· facilitate working with external strategic partners;
· be trust and confidence inducing both within the organization and externally.

Such ‘effects-based leadership’ processes do exist, and have been proven to be effective since I first wrote about them in 1997 – in commercial enterprises, public sector and voluntary organizations – across the UK and EU, USA, Australasia, Asia and Africa. Some case studies of success illustrated with impressive numbers, together with an outline of such leadership processes may be found on the Tozer Consulting website and in more detail in my new book 'Leading Through Leaders' (Kogan Page, August 2012).

Organizationally, such common processes are the platform for ensuring unity of purpose and direction, for effectively and rapidly reconfiguring business units to meet new challenges, and for leading change. This is also the platform for building trust between leaders and team members (who themselves may be leaders of teams at a lower level). The approach enables a rapid cascade of information and delegated, aligned and prioritised tasks which are then planned in detail by task owners who follow the same cycle of decision-making, planning and briefing as appropriate. This leads to organizational agility and the effective execution of plans by an organization working together as one

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