Four Big Reasons Managers and Executives Fail at Strategy

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123RF Stock Photo

Why do so many executives (and high level managers) fail when it comes to executing on their strategy? The problem — their involvement stops with the talking part. They just expect it “to happen” once they communicate the strategy.

It’s as though they believe that people throughout the organization will suddenly understand what new work they have to do, that resources will be automatically re-assinged without any pain, and individuals will understand how to prioritize new tasks over current work, so it will just get done.

For years I have been trying to figure out why so many leaders tolerate poor execution and do nothing about it. I’d welcome your comments on this as well.

I see two pitfalls:

  1. It’s hard and boring. Measuring, tracking, and communicating is not nearly as fun as doing a deal or creating something new.
  2. They feel like it’s beneath them. It’s not worth their brilliant strategic time to focus on. They view execution as a low level job for other, less important, less strategic people to deal with.

I’ll deal with the second one first. This “above it all” approach is dangerous. The best executives engage and motivate their whole organization do to the work that needs to be done by managing the execution, not just talking about the strategy.

Strategy must have action

Strategy without action is just nice, big-sounding words about things you hope will come true.

And action does not happen without executive involvement. Period. Yet I see so many executives who keep strategy at the big, exciting goal level. They just expect their organization will somehow, automatically self optimize to make it happen.

Just because you said what the strategy is, doesn’t mean people will do the right things to implement it.

Here are four key reasons it doesn’t work to stay “above execution.”

1. Too busy on current work

All organizations are fully busy and under-resourced doing stuff today. The focus and effort it takes to get people to do different stuff than they are doing today is enormous. This will never happen automatically, or in the background, or with a suggestion.

People will never start doing new things unless there is a clear strategy AND action plan to implement that strategy. It doesn’t matter how inspiring your big sounding goals are, people will never start doing new things unless the leader actively shows them what to stop doing, what to start doing, and why.

And then the leader needs to stick to the strategy, not undermine it to chase new shiny objects, and reinforce and support the new way of working every day. (Boring, but necessary.)

2. Action causes conflict

The only thing that makes strategy ultimately clear is doing it. Strategy is where you put your resources. You can say your strategy is what ever you want to say, but all you need to do is look at your budget and that tells you your strategy.

Your budget describes what you are doing. If you want to change your strategy, you need to change your budget. A good strategy that drives action will require that some things will get more money and some things will get less money.

Some people win and some people lose. This causes conflict. As a leader you will never drive strategy into action if you are unwilling to engage in this level of clarity and conflict. People will never sort it out amongst themselves. (This is hard, but necessary)

3. Execution requires steady communication from the top

Because you need people to be doing different things and because this causes conflict, people will race back to doing things the old way as soon as there is a bump in the road if there is not an even more powerful, consistent message to stay the course.

As a leader you need to let people know you are serious. You need to over-communicate the strategy by talking about the action: specifically what needs to be done and why.

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If your people don’t hear a consistent message about execution from you regularly, over time, action will stall or revert to the old way.

4. Execution requires measures and consequences

So many companies set strategic goals, then don’t achieve them, and then nothing happens. Without measures and consequences for not meeting them, no strategic initiative will ever happen.

If the leader does not engage in the discussion about what happened, how will we fix it, and what the consequences are, there is no motivation whatsoever for anyone to do anything different than what they are doing today.

It’s hard and it’s boring

As it turns out, this is the part of business leadership I was always best at. The hard and the boring stuff — the clarity, the conflict, the measuring, the tracking, the communication, and the consequences. And, at translating Strategy into Action into Results. This is a big part of the work that I do with executive management teams in my Strategy into Action Program.

If you are not happy with how fast and predictably your organization can execute on your goals and commitments, brace yourself for some hard and boring, and look to these four ideas to get you back on track.

Let’s face it — some executives are not good at this part of execution and will never be. It is critical for an executive who is an externally focused-industry visionary-deal maker to recognize that they need someone on their staff who can help do the hard and boring part.

But take some care to realize that while you can delegate execution to some extent, you can not abdicate it entirely.

Even if you are not personally good at managing execution over the long term, you can’t simply remain above it because you find it distasteful, boring, or unbecoming of an executive or senior manager of your stature.

You need to lead the communications, decisions and enforcement of consequences even if you are not doing all the leg-work personally.

Otherwise you will be disconnected from the actual strategy of the company as you relish in the smart sounding big, goal-oriented words that describe your wishes, not your reality.

This was originally published on Patty Azzarello’s Business Leadership Blog. Her latest book is Rise: How to be Really Successful at Work and LIKE Your Life.

Patty Azzarello is the founder and CEO of Azzarello Group. She's also an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/business advisor. She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35, and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk). You can find her at patty@azzarellogroup.com .

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2 Comments on “Four Big Reasons Managers and Executives Fail at Strategy

  1. Nice post. 

    Even the best companies are poor at execution.  One Forbes survey published a couple of years ago revealed that “82% of Fortune 500 CEO’s feel their organization did an effective job of strategic planning. Only 14% of the same CEO’s indicated that their organization did an effective job of implementing the strategy.“  This most clearly describes the Strategy Execution Gap.
    I believe the biggest contributor to this gap is that companies define and pursue strategies they are UNABLE to execute.  They simply do not have the capability to execute on the strategy they defined.  That is to say they either do not have the human, information, and financial capital to effectively execute or they have not aligned those assets to effectively execute.  Many organizations fail to include shoring up their capability into their strategic plan.  This in part goes to what you imply in Pit Fall 2.  I’m not sure managers feel it is beneath them as much as they have not been trained on how to connect strategic assets (human, information, financial) to the activities that will translate the strategy into results. 
    As you describe in Reason 2 –look at the budget.  But I’ll take this one step further.  If leaders asked themselves the following 3 questions, they will see they are not all that focused on executing their strategy:
    1.       How much ($) salary-expense and non-salary expense do they allocate to their corporate strategy and/or each strategic initiative?
    2.       What % of time do their associates spend on strategic activities vs. non-strategic activities?  Do they even measure this?
    3.       How many FTE’s and what % of total headcount do they allocate towards executing corporate strategy?
    Many organizations do not track or report on this information.  So using the old adage you can’t manage what you can’t measure, is it any wonder why companies struggle with bridging the gap between strategy and execution?
    Regarding Reasons 3 and 4 – You’re right.  But pointing to the above, they may not have the right information to communicate.  Not only that, they likely do not have the information available, or in a consumable format, or timely enough to make decisions related to executing their strategy. 
    Strategy execution needs to be woven into the fabric of regular daily activities of the workforce.  While communication from the top is critical, I believe managers at all levels need to know how their teams influence or contribute to the achievement of the corporate strategic goals.  Most however don’t typically know; at least not in specific terms.

  2. I totally agree with you Patty, strategy execution is a big issue
    and likely to become more so now change and uncertainly is increasingly being
    recognised as normality. I have certainly met a few senior executives who
    consider responsibility for execution below them, and maybe these people also
    believed it boring, but my experience suggests the vast majority do not see
    things this way. Most of the senior executives I have spoken to over the years would
    not consider themselves above execution; in fact many cite how they regularly track
    and review execution and the frustration they experience from lack of progress.

    Even so, your analysis of why execution is so poor supports
    my findings, although in some I interpret them a little differently.    As an example take your first item ‘Too busy
    on current work’.  Employees often cite
    this as a reason for not executing. Yet a little investigation frequently reveals
    that this is a symptom, not the cause. Essentially employees are not giving execution
    of strategy sufficient priority. They are not doing so, because the management
    system they operate within treats strategy execution as an appendage to day to
    day tasks – the day job first, then strategy execution.. It is an appendage, because
    an individual’s daily tasks where never aligned to the execution of strategy. One
    way to resolve this is to hardwire the strategy to the intended actions of
    every individual in the organisation. Doing so requires a change in management
    practice.

    Another example is your item 3. Steady communication from
    the top is necessary, but there are many examples of where this is done and
    little changes. You indicate the need to ‘communicate by talking action’. This
    I believe is closer to what needs to be done. In Evolutive Management for
    example, senior management are connection to employee actions through Execution
    Reviews, and in part the escalation process. This is action rather than just communication.
     

    There are other examples, however I believe your point about
    managers not abdicating accountability for execution entirely is critical. In
    fact I would suggest managers cannot abdicate accountability for strategy
    execution in any way. They may share accountability for execution with their
    direct reports, but not abdicate accountability. I will now head off to Amazon
    to buy your book.

    You may be interested in this article on the same subject. http://www.evolutiresearch.com/-excellence-in-execution/

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