Back in the golden age of American business—before the dot-com meltdown, the Great Recession, and the banking crisis—most business leaders considered strategy and execution two different (if related) factors in the business equation. Strategy was something arrived at gradually at high-level meetings that took days, typically defined in 3-to-5 year chunks. At best, execution represented the downstream outcome of the leadership strategy, which was to be implemented by the management team.
We all know better now, having realized the hard way that strategy and execution are actually aspects of the same business continuum. In its most simplistic sense, execution is the process of moving from A to B, or from a stated strategic initiative to a tactic. Efficient execution, then, is the shortest distance between the goal and a check mark; effective execution is the most profitable outcome between the goal and a check mark. As you know, efficiency and effectiveness aren’t always the same thing: you can get something done quickly, but it might not be the most profitable in the long run. Ideally, business leaders want to do both: achieve Maximum Results in Minimum Time™.
In my newest book published by Berrett-Koehler, Execution IS the Strategy, you’ll note my bias toward agility and getting things done; in fact, in most cases, I assume you (the reader/the leader) have a valid strategy. I am passionate about speed, because I firmly believe it’s not about who has the best ideas; it’s about who executes their ideas best. A mediocre strategy, executed brilliantly, can beat the pants off a great strategy, executed poorly. Execution can’t be leisurely.
Why does execution need to happen more quickly now than ever before?
1. The unprecedented speed of change. Technological evolution and instant worldwide communications means that business can change faster than at any other time in history. We need the ability to execute immediately—not just to take advantage of new trends—but to implement our strategies before change passes us by.
2. The need to execute strategy in the moment. In order to stay ahead of the race, front-line employees must be empowered to execute on the spot, without waiting for permission to percolate down from the top. If management ties their hands, the battle is lost before it begins. Actions are communicated upward, which allows the strategy to course-correct.
3. The convergence of manager and worker. Managers are now members of the team. The leader acts more as guide, facilitator, and cheerleader than dictator; they provide the vision and shape direction, while the professionals execute in the moment. Workers need the flexibility to make their jobs their own so they can execute on the spot and shape strategy upward.
4. Strategic plans age too quickly. When business speed was more sedate and you knew a piece of technology wouldn’t become outdated within six months, it made sense to plan company strategy years in advance. That’s no longer true. Modern strategic plans must be able to jerk to a stop and turn on a dime. Anyone who doesn’t review theirs at least quarterly—if not monthly—runs the risk of failure.
5. Only results matter. Swift, productive strategic execution puts black ink on the bottom line, unlike adherence to a strategy that’s out of date soon after it’s printed. Empower your team members to succeed by executing from experience or experimenting as conditions change.
Given these conditions, do you have the ability to execute strategy efficiently and effectively? Over the past 22 years working with business leaders on turning strategy into performance, I’ve determined there are Four Keys that must be present to succeed, which I call The L-E-A-D Formula™:
L = Leverage: Are you strong enough as a leader, and do you have the right people and drivers in place to achieve your strategic priorities? If not, then you have a talent/resource issue.
E = Environment: Do you have the organizational atmosphere, practices, and unwritten ground rules to allow your employees to easily support your strategic priorities? If not, you have a cultural/engagement issue.
A = Alignment: Do your team members’ daily activities move them toward the accomplishment of the organization’s ultimate goals? If not, then you have a communication/productivity issue.
D = Drive: Are your organization’s leaders, teams, and employees nimble enough to move quickly once the first three keys are in place? If not, you have a speed/agility issue.
Each of these four keys has three components, which represent the 12 chapters in Execution IS the Strategy. Each chapter has three factors, so there are potentially 36 obstacles that stall execution. To determine what’s preventing you from executing and getting things done, I invite you to take the free Execution Quotient (EQ) assessment in the book at www.ExecutionQuotient.com. If I’m presenting to your management team meeting, we’ll send you a custom URL for your team to take the assessment, so you can get the collective group opinion on what should change. Articles, book club materials, videos, and bonuses are available at www.ExecutionIsTheStrategy.com.
Ideally, a strategic plan serves as a vehicle for continually asking executives and other organizational leaders to evaluate the direction of their businesses according to their overall goals. But since there’s barely enough time to stop and take a breath anymore, this doesn’t always happen. Leaders must lean on their team members to help them make solid, reliable decisions on how to best execute the tactics that advance the ultimate organizational strategy. In that sense, Execution (really) IS the Strategy that will propel your organization forward.