Like the old gray mare of legend, strategic execution just ain’t what it used to be—a point that hit home repeatedly as I conducted interviews with high-level executives in a number of industries while researching my latest book, Execution IS the Strategy.
Ideally, a strategic plan serves as a vehicle for continually reminding organizational leaders to evaluate the direction of their businesses according to their overall goals. But this doesn’t always happen. Why? Because there’s barely enough time to stop and take a breath anymore—much less implement a tool that may be stale before it’s a month old.
Today, leaders rely on their front line workers to help them make solid, reliable decisions on how to best execute the objectives that advance organizational strategy.
The Four Keys to Efficient Strategic Execution
In more than twenty years of helping leaders create high-performance cultures and accelerate growth, I’ve identified four key factors that must be in place for a leader to execute strategy efficiently. Without these elements, an execution can fail—even when you base it on a mature, effective strategy. The Four Keys to Efficient Strategic Execution—Leverage, Environment, Alignment, and Drive—represent solutions to these failures and form the L-E-A-D Formula™ outlined in Execution IS the Strategy.
L = Leverage: Do you have the right people and drivers in place to achieve your strategic priorities—ones that allow you to execute your strategy when the rubber hits the road? If not, then you have a talent/resource issue.
E = Environment: Do you have the organizational atmosphere, practices, and culture that will 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 agile enough to move quickly once the first three pieces of this process are in place? If not, you have a speed/agility issue.
Strategic Planning in the Now
In recent years, companies scrambling to keep up with the frantic pace of our brave new world have changed the way they conduct strategic planning. We’ve always practiced strategic planning at some level, of course, and we still need it today; but what we meant by the term as few as five years ago barely resembles today’s reality. This should come as no surprise in an era when last month’s smartphone can’t run this month’s apps.
Once upon a time, strategic planning was a leisurely process, hidebound and bureaucratic. Some managers still treat it as such; worse, they see strategic planning as something mysteriously created by senior executives and/or outside consultants. They perceive execution as little more than the downstream part of the process. The senior leadership decides what to do, while staff members take the decision and run with it along a very narrow, predetermined path, complete with detailed financials.
This process doesn’t work so well anymore. More often than not, an entire market suddenly shifts, or an employee comes across an opportunity that must be seized in the moment, requiring operational action that in turn alters strategic direction. So at the end of the year, when (and if) the plan is reviewed, what the executors actually did is often not what the leaders outlined. Companies must adapt on the fly to fit current reality; if they fail to adapt, the company takes a hit. Enough hits, and it’ll be down for the count.
Strategic Planning Belongs on the Front Line, Too
Leaders still play a crucial role in strategy, because someone must communicate the goals and priorities to the workers. But today’s business world is too unpredictable to straitjacket your front-liners with last year’s strategies. Keep the following principles in mind as you proceed with your strategic planning.
Think Around Corners
Everything is in a state of flux, more so than at any other time in history. Clearly, the old-fashioned three-to-five-year strategic plans don’t work anymore. At best, you can only plan a year or so ahead, and even then, you’d better review your strategy quarterly, monthly, weekly, and even daily in some cases.
Exercise Serious Agility
In today’s business environment, you can generate better results if you engage your workers and create an agile corporate culture full of strategic thinkers. Workers must be empowered to take ownership of their jobs, engage without fear of censure, and act on what they know works best without waiting for permission from the chain of command.
Accept Your New Leadership Role
Rather than simply issuing orders and expecting team members to follow them blindly, encourage them to do what they already know they need to do. Accept the reality that, despite your leadership role, they’re the ones at the sharp end of the stick. Don’t lose sight of the fact that modern leadership is more of a partnership than ever before. Work may not be a democracy, but it’s definitely not a dictatorship anymore. Circumstances change too fast.
Engineer Behavioral Change
A big part of your role is getting your team to accept the desirability of change, constantly and consistently. They must be willing to turn on a dime and start doing things differently whenever it’s necessary for the team and organization.
Keep a constant eye on the horizon in this era of rapid business evolution. Optimize your business networks to include more emerging marketplace connections, so you can ease into the market change as it occurs. Keep a close eye on both your customer base and your competition, note how their compositions are changing over time, and be prepared to realign your strategy to take advantage of those changes. You not only have to be prepared for change, but you also have to understand, well in advance, what type of change will most likely occur—so you won’t be blindsided by unexpected events.
Couple Wishful Thinking with Positive Action
As hard-nosed as business people appear to be, we’re still susceptible to wishful thinking. Consider it an occupational hazard, especially when the money’s rolling in in seemingly endless quantities. But simply wishing for something hard enough won’t make it come true. Just saying you want to improve your strategic execution is meaningless. You must couple desire with positive action for it to matter.
Charge in the Right Direction
Hard work and high-speed action don’t matter one iota when they’re pointed in the wrong direction or otherwise poorly executed. Reality trumps naive optimism and good intentions every time. If you’re enthusiastic about your business outlook and spend many hours planning how you’re going to achieve your goals, that’s great—as long as you combine all that with actual action designed to put your team, department, or organization at the front of the pack, pointed in the proper direction. Business is no longer just dog-eat-dog; it’s more shark-eat-shark. You have no choice but to combine optimism with cautious, properly oriented implementation designed to meet change head-on.
Realize That Execution IS the Strategy
Today’s leaders can’t effectively dictate how to execute strategic priorities anymore; only those who execute can, because everything changes so rapidly. That said, as a leader, you’re still responsible for clarifying goals and creating and organizing the strategy, so people know what they’re shooting for and have some general way to get there.
Furthermore, you can’t accept that a goal has been set until the execution team has adopted it. Never blame your people for failure of strategic execution. If you haven’t clarified your objectives well enough that they can name them at the drop of a hat, then how can they know what they need to do in order to achieve maximum results? If they’re not sure what they’re doing, they’ll just go through the motions, stay busy, and keep their heads down.
Step in to show them what they must accomplish and why it matters—and then take steps to reduce the whirlwind of daily work so they have time to execute the bigger goals. Make them accountable for their results, employing accurate means of measuring performance. Offer the right rewards—and, most of all, allow them to adopt flexible operational plans to fit the current reality. Do all this, and they’ll achieve wonders for you.
Shift Your Mental Model
Strategy is no longer chiseled in stone; it has become as flexible and changeable as life itself. We still need leaders to articulate the mission, vision, goals, and strategy, while the team defines the tactics, which shapes the strategy, as leaders make the course corrections, in a continuous cycle. Leaders also hold us to the core values that define our organizations.
In today’s business world, execution itself is the only strategy that matters. A decent strategy, brilliantly executed, will trump a brilliant strategy that’s poorly executed. As leaders and followers form tighter partnerships, the companies with the stellar strategies that follow the principles of the L-E-A-D Formula will maintain the conditions necessary to hurtle forward.
Don’t lose sight of what truly matters in the day-to-day battles. Execution truly is the strategy that will propel your organization to success.