“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” —Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)
What is this all about? Is this an approach whose time has come? Are organizations actually approaching execution in a systematic way? Or are consultants just promoting the next fad?
Who is talking about Strategy Execution?
On November 11, 2013, a Google search yields ~30M responses (which compares to ~699M responses for Project Management and ~48M for Change Management). Granted, this is a very blunt instrument with which to measure activity but it is interesting. Thirty million responses suggests there is some chatter.
I happen to monitor Strategy Execution because I figured out about a decade ago, on reading “Execution: The discipline of getting things done” by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan, that this is what I do. I realized then that I had deep insight and experience in only a few components of it and set out to get an understanding of the broader picture. Even last year when I put together the series on “Strategy Execution Methodologies” it was not such an easy or straight-forward piece of work. There are many who talk in terms of principles—motherhood, if you will—but very few who can translate this into operational process.
Back in 2002/03, references to strategy execution were lower case, as if it were a category like performance improvement or operational efficiency. Not too many people were talking about Strategy Execution. Don’t get me wrong, many consultants use the phrase “strategy execution,” typically as a generic reference to a set of competences or processes, but not as a standard discipline.
Years ago, when I started looking for thought leaders on Strategy Execution, outside of the usual consulting firms who promote their services but publicly provide little in the way of research or process, I found only Conner Partners. Granted, the firm’s inception out of ODR in 2004 gave it a very OD-related perspective; however, the innovative approach was also peppered with bottom-line concepts including strategic alignment, installation vs. realization, and the integration of change management and project management. The firm has continued innovating and you can catch the latest perspectives on “Successful Strategy Execution” in this 21st Century Business Television Series showing across various US cable networks in November 2013.
Other distinctive training and consulting offers have emerged. Here are some examples:
- Franklin Covey has added Business Execution to its list of training and consulting solutions. In April 2012, three of Franklin Covey’s senior practitioners partnered to publish “The 4 Disciplines of Execution: Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals” (Sean Covey, Chris McChesney and Jim Huling). For leaders and senior managers, this provides important high-level principles regarding execution.
- INSEAD, one of the world’s leading and largest graduate business schools, launched a Strategy Execution Program earlier this year. It also covers many of the strategic mindsets and operational concepts that leaders need to consider in taking an integrated approach to execution.
- Root Inc., formerly Root Learning, has evolved quickly over the past few years. It is leveraging its incredible capabilities in communications (icons, infographics, drawings, conceptual illustrations, and metaphors to tell stories visually) to bring insight and facilitation to the front end of creating alignment, accountability, ownership, and advocacy at all levels of the business, by giving every person in a company a system-wide view of the strategy, the objectives, and their role in that system.
- Palladium Group Inc., which was The Balanced ScoreCard Collaborative, Inc. until 2005, has been building Enterprise approaches to close the execution gap since the 1990s. Robert S. Kaplan and David P. Norton began with the “Balanced Scorecard: Translating Strategy into Action” (1996), then moved into “Strategy Maps: Converting Intangible Assets into Tangible Outcomes” (2003), “Alignment: Using the Balanced Scorecard to Create Corporate Synergies” (2006), and, most recently, “The Execution Premium: Linking Strategy to Operations for Competitive Advantage” (2008). They are continuing to build out their offers, and in September 2013 launched a three-day program entitled “Leadership for Strategy Execution.”
Of note, although a lesser-known name, Joe Evans at Method Frameworks is producing some very insightful and pragmatic tools, techniques, and approaches.
What’s that chatter all about? And why is it “hot” now?
There is a general recognition that the rate and degree of change that organizations are required to make to remain competitive is still increasing. Further, there is a level of anxiety around the low success rates that most organizations have with strategy execution (more on this in “Time to kill the phantom 70% failure rate?”).
As the complexity of strategy has increased and the pressure rises to implement faster, organizations are pressed to coordinate and deliver to higher standards. This is creating interest in the nascent discipline of Strategy Execution.
However, this is not your mother’s Project Management. Project Management emerged years ago and has continued to evolve. It has moved faster than leaders’ understanding of it. Program and Portfolio Management are still not widely appreciated. And yet, only just this August, PMI released a discussion paper on integrating change management (more on this in a subsequent post).
Agree and disagree
There is no standard definition of Strategy Execution so some approaches will agree on some components and disagree on others.
To my mind Strategy Execution is the C-Suite-to-front-line, beginning-to-end conception-to-execution of strategy—from approved Business Case to sustainable results. This means integrating three key components:
- Determined stewardship of strategic intent. Often strategy is handed off to the project team in the form of a Business Case and then it is iterated through Charters and Requirement documents until finally a variation is delivered. This may be fine for straight-forward incremental change however for transformational or emergent change it is radically insufficient. To ensure a complete alignment and deep commitment to strategic intent (future state / scope), as its design is refined, the leadership team must be actively involved—all the way through to realization of results.
- Efficient organization of resources, i.e. Project, Program or Portfolio Management. Given the maturity of this capability in most organizations, this is usually the no-brainer. Conventionally this focuses on scope, timeline and budget. However, there are usually two hitches: how to integrate this with the other components and how to oversee realization of results after installation and team is adjourned.
- Vibrant commitment of people through Change Management. The more we ask people to change the way they think about their roles (identity), what they do (competency) or how they do it (capability) then the more important it is to help them through the transition. When optimal success depends on adoption, utilization and proficiency speed (thank you, Prosci) and on discretionary effort then we must bring people along. This often requires adjustments in organizational design, compensation and even culture.
Where most thought leadership still falls short, though, is in how to operationalize these in a comprehensive and, yet flexible, approach.
Sure, there is a commercial angle here. Most of the sources noted are consultants and training providers, so if you want to know more about how to execute, you should, of course, retain them and/or take their training. Buyer beware though, in my opinion, most of these are still emergent. My own experience and networking suggests that many large organizations that have thoroughly reviewed some of these offers are still faced with cobbling multiple approaches together to create “ABC Company’s Delivery Approach.”
What is “bigger” than Strategy Execution?
As fast as we are running to help organizations become better, faster, and more effective at Strategy Execution, most organizations are also missing a bigger opportunity.
Surely it has become clear that the notion of stepped change (i.e., make a change, then milk that new competitive advantage, then later change again) is an anachronism. Organizations need to change constantly. This will continue to be a process, but it need not be an ordeal. Organizations need to develop competencies around change. They need to develop a culture of change, an appetite for change.
Many thought leaders have written about “change agility” and the “nimble organization,” but it seems that most organizations are focused on current needs rather than developing deeper capabilities.
Meanwhile, newer organizations in newer industries such as technology and communications seem to have been born into a more dynamic state. Organizations such as Apple, Amazon, and Google live to change.
Imagine the impact on our economy if all of our organizations were highly adaptable.
We are just scratching the surface of this topic. More to come.
So, who do you follow on the subject of Strategy Execution? Or on creating a nimble culture?
- Time to kill the phantom 70 failure rate?
- Breakthroughs in Strategy
- Strategy Execution Methodology series
- What can sports teach us about strategy execution? 10 lessons
Change Whisperer by www.gailseverini.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.