As managers, we learn the truth what Dwight D. Eisenhower once said: “Plans are useless; planning is everything.” Indeed, execution—more than planning—determines success. Planning should be a process for building clarity and alignment, and positioning for efficient and effective execution.
Each year managers spend countless hours planning, budgeting, and forecasting. Most expect significant results from their plans. Unfortunately, even seasoned managers struggle to bring together people, strategies, and operations to achieve results.
We have identified five critical barriers to successful execution.
Barrier 1: The underlying strategy is not clear.
Confusion ranges from “fuzziness” in direction to not understanding what strategy is. A strategy represents set of decisions regarding the future and how to achieve success. Without a crisp articulation of these decisions, executives must reinvent them every time a new idea, opportunity, or problem arises—resulting in endless meetings, missed opportunities, a culture of indecision, and lower returns on executives’ time. A lack of clarity and agreement regarding the direction creates a void where personalities, politics, and oneupmanship prevail. Disagreements are played out in fragments of daily conversations and emails about what initiative is the priority at that moment, resulting in diluted progress, frustration, and missed opportunities.
Solution: Invest the time to get clear. Every executive team must agree on three points: Who are we? Where are we going? How are we going to get there? The level of clarity required for execution is derived from focusing on actionable answers. For example, there may be more value in defining the basic competitive advantage of the enterprise than in wordsmithing a mission statement. We suggest using a strategic framework to unify all aspects of strategy, one important element being a Quantified Vision. In addressing where are we going, it is powerful to paint a picture of the future with numbers to depict the evolution—not just financially, but also in terms of customers, products, and locations.
Barrier 2: The plan is overly optimistic.
Most executive teams tend to take on too much. The opportunities and issues they face make it difficult to prioritize initiatives and activities. As organizations evolve, they collect initiatives, processes, and pet projects that dilute focus and soak up resources. In addition, when executives plan, they often assume a perfect world—one free of distractions and problems. Such environments don’t exist. Runaway optimism builds failure into the plan, corrupting the notion of execution in the minds of the people required to follow-through and maintain the plan.
Solution: Define priorities. Creating an executable plan requires putting as much discipline and focus on those things that are not considered a priority for execution as those that are. The Not Do’ s must be identified along with Must-Do’s. From a list of initiatives, projects, and activities underway or planned, assign each item to one of three buckets: 1) must-do this year, 2) nice-to-have this year, and 3) not-do this year. Ask which items are most critical to executing them and achieving the vision. Put nice-to-have items in a holding bin. Put not-do activities and pet projects on hold. Cease activities relating to the not-do’s.
Barrier 3: No one is accountable for results.
Accountability motivates people to follow-through on their commitments. A driver of accountability is clarity on “who is on the hook for what.” Unfortunately, most managers focus the accountabilities on activities, as opposed to results. This creates challenges. You must ask: “Does all of this activity add up to real progress against strategic objectives?” “Are people makll1g progress against their commitments?” Without a clearly defined “finish line,” accountability will be confused or diluted.
Solution: Raise the stakes. As initiatives are prioritized, tie the initiative to a time horizon. Define a specific business result associated with effective execution of that initiative. What do we expect to get out of this initiative? When? Who is on the hook to make this happen? Defining initiatives in this manner raises the stakes for execution and enables people to fully commit. These initiatives become your business commitments.
Barrier 4: The plan has not been actively deployed.
Many executives complain about the difficulty of aligning around a vision or strategy. When asked what they do to deploy the vision or strategy, they respond with puzzled looks or explanations of communications programs. Issues of strategic importance require more than a 60-minute presentation in order for people to internalize and act on them. Treating complex issues in this manner usually reaps confusion at best. At worst, the result is mismatched expectations. To do their jobs, managers need to apply the strategy to their part of the business, ideally by working shoulder-to-shoulder with the primary authors of the strategic plan.
Solution: Mobilize the troops. Leaders should articulate the new strategy or plan to groups of managers in a series of deployment workshops. Leaders and managers participate in planning exercises in which the managers make decisions regarding what they must do differently as a result of the new strategic plan. This approach aligns, motivates, and mobilizes people to execute the strategy, as it builds momentum.
Barrier 5: The plan is static.
Within many expensive but ineffective plans is an unspoken assumption that nothing can change the validity of the plan. Of course, this is not true. Today major changes in the competitive landscape, economy, and key strategic areas must assumed. Strategic plans that do not account for change are doomed.
As internal and external conditions drive changes in priorities and resource allocations, one of three things impedes the use of the strategic plan:
- the plan not visible—after planning, it is locked away, disconnected from decision-making;
- the plan is not accessible it is held in secret, restricted to a few senior executives; or
- the plan is not changeable—it is a dense amalgam, making it difficult to update and manage.
If any of these situations exists, the effort required to maintain the plan becomes unwieldy and the plan becomes obsolete. Executives must then do so without the benefit of the analysis encompassed in the strategic plan or an understanding of how resources are to be applied to aid quick decision-making.
Solution: Create an execution process. Use strategy as a weapon to drive progress, manage accountabilities, evaluate performance and support decision-making. Make the plan visible, accessible and changeable. Use annual planning not to develop static plans, but to create dynamic processes: single-page executive dashboards, single-page management action plans, and strategy progress meetings. A dynamic planning and execution process helps an executive team understand progress, make decisions, and take action.
Successful strategy execution is a dynamic process. Strategy begins as a set of agreements about markets, products, revenues, and growth. The rest is execution. Unless there is a process for evaluating execution, making decisions, and closing the loop with the original strategy, the effort dies. Execution is a process for maintaining strategic progress. Refocus your planning activities on execution of plans. Use your planning process to steer around these barriers and on to success.