In my work with organizations to help them put their Strategy into Action, I find very often that many teams have trouble executing for a couple of fundamental reasons.
Alignment is not enough
Let’s assume your team is 100% aligned.
Alignment is a first important step. And getting a team truly aligned is no small feat. But even when I encounter a team that is very aligned on the strategy, and also…they get along, and they are not dysfunctional…
I still find that the group can get stuck talking about what is so critically important to accomplish, rather than accomplishing it.
Do you have an initiative that you have been talking about for a year or more but have not made material progress on? If you do, you are not alone.
Execution is hard.
Everyone can get excited about the important outcome, but it’s harder to get people excited about doing something hard and different every day for 18 months until you get the new thing done.
In very basic terms, the 2 things that get in the way of execution are… (even if everyone is aligned) that your team:
1. Doesn’t know what to do, specifically
2. Doesn’t know how to do it
Let me tell you what I mean.
1. People don’t know what to do, specifically
What I mean by this is that once you decide that your strategy is to build a new sales channel, or make your manufacturing process more efficient, or to sell higher, or to create a more competitive project, everyone can agree how much better the world looks 12-18 months from now when you achieve it.
Organizations can (and often do) put increased revenue numbers in their plan to reflect that these improvements have been achieved and are paying off.
But the place organizations get stuck is that the WHAT never gets clearly defined. For any one of these ideas, deciding WHAT to do specifically to achieve it is often difficult and controversial.
Defining WHAT to do is hard because it is a concrete decision that implies commitments and risks — and resource shifts. It is not a vague description of an important outcome. It’s an action plan.
And for any strategic initiative, there can be many possible WHAT’s. And it can be difficult to understand who is supposed to decide the WHAT. So there is a stall…
Do we build or buy? Do we hire or train? Do we change our marketing mix or add sales people? Do we change our partners or change our process of working with them?
Defining the WHAT is what initiates action, which requires saying NO to other options, which is hard… and organizations have a natural tendency to avoid it!
In my Strategy into Action sessions, I see that the big idea can finally get traction when we force the discussion about WHAT will we do, specifically: What concrete outcomes will we deliver? Along what timeline? with what resources from where? And with what measures?
Getting to this level of concreteness is hard work, but it’s the first and totally necessary step to navigate from talking to doing.
2. People don’t know how to do it
The next breakdown that I see is that the people are not ready to do the new thing.
It’s not that people are not talented and committed to make a difference, it is that the organization is trying to do something new, and in the first moments, they are trying to do it with the same people.
After you define the WHAT, it is so important to assess what the new tasks require, then assess what skills are required to do them. Then you need to be honest about what skills you have, and which ones you are lacking in your current team.
One of the most frequent breakdowns I see here in terms of skill gaps is that:
Mid level managers don’t have the strategic leadership skills necessary to prioritize and lead change, or that they simply don’t realize that their job has changed from managing projects to leading change.
So the executives expect their mid level managers to pick up the ball and start running with the new strategy, but they don’t.
Building Leadership Capacity for Change
When I work with organizations on transformations it often involves both of these steps. 1. Get very clear not only on the strategy and alignment, but on the WHAT you are going to do. And then 2. Train your mid level and director level managers to be ready to think and work and lead more strategically.
When I work with mid-level managers and directors I always find that there are some very talented and capable people who simply did not realize what it looks like to work more strategically. Once I was able to put some new ideas about leadership into their imagination, their contribution sky-rocketed.
Not every non-strategic manger will become strategic with training, but I have found that by providing the right insights and support, you can find the hidden strategic stars in your organization that you need to move your strategy forward — and they can help bring the rest of the organization with them.
What to do next?
If you find that you are talking about important future accomplishments but not doing them, consider these two steps. Ask yourself:
1. Have we clearly defined the WHAT?
2. Have we given enough support to our mid-level managers so that they truly understand what their job looks like in the new world? Have we helped them to feel confident to do what we need them to do?
And as always, contact me if you’d like to talk about it.
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Patty Azzarello is 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)