Stop Blaming Failed Strategy on “Poor Execution”
About a year ago the CFO of a company told me over breakfast that his company had an excellent strategy. He went on to share that the stalled results of the company were due to poor execution of that strategy. Curious about what that really meant, I probed for additional detail. The conversation was productive, but my conclusion was that this was an all-too-common “Executive Cop-Out.”
It’s convenient. It’s easy. It’s a widely accepted excuse. But blaming the failure of strategy on poor execution demonstrates an essential gap in understanding: strategy and its execution are inextricably linked. A fundamental part of strategy development should be consideration of the primary issues that could cause the strategy to fail. For instance, if you are concerned about the capabilities of your people in certain positions or locations, then your strategy should necessarily include additional measures to increase those capabilities to ensure effective execution. If you haven’t planned for these issues, then failure was baked into your strategy from the start.
Rather than blame “poor execution,” focus on three things you can do when formulating, presenting, and managing your strategy.
1. Articulate your strategy in pragmatic terms. As I often say, explain it as if you are talking with a friend from high school. Strategy presentations often leave me feeling like I’ve just been handed the instructions for building an entertainment center from IKEA: the diagrams are hard to follow, and the words are all in a foreign language. If you can’t tell me your strategy in a few simple sentences, there is little chance that others in your company will be able to grasp your strategy and execute it. Effective strategies include the scope of products and services, markets, and how you will win.
2. Establish the priorities that are fundamental to the achievement of your strategy. Define the capabilities and resources you need in order to implement that strategy and express them as projects you can complete. You’ll have to make tough choices here because you can’t do everything and advancing 3 priorities by miles is far better than advancing a dozen by inches.
3. Create a management framework that unequivocally defines the leading indicators of progress for your strategy. Some cars have a light that flashes on when the engine overheats, and some have a gauge that shows the temperature as it increases. Your strategy needs measurable milestones that portend success, not just a warning light when the engine has already boiled over. And I’m not talking about rear-view mirror financial results, which can only show you the past, not the future.
If a company strategy is not achieving the desired outcomes, you have to question the strategy itself, not only the execution. Parsing away execution alone as the causal factor may provide some comfort or defense for the creators of that strategy, but it won’t work in solving the problem and restoring results. No strategy can be called “excellent” if it’s not working.
A Slice of Life Balance
We are halfway through 2017 and in the heart of vacation season. Every year we say the year is flying by. That’s because it is. So don’t be surprised by that fact: take time to slow it down with your vacation.
You don’t need me to extoll the benefits of taking time off work. There is plenty of research about this, including that people who take more vacation time tend to be rated higher in evaluations by their bosses and viewed as more productive by peers. But I do have some ideas on how you as a leader can prepare for and manage your vacation. I’ve written about this for Harvard Business Review and have been interviewed by HBR as well. Below are links to articles that I believe you’ll find useful. I’ve worked with enough executives to know that time away from work is an important ingredient to high performance, so you might as well get good at it!
- Read This Before You Head Out on Vacation
- Don’t Obsess Over Getting Everything Done Before a Vacation:
- The Professional’s Guide to a Stress-Free Vacation
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