“Failure usually comes at the end. If people paid as much attention to the end as they do to the beginning then failure would come less often” – Lao Tzu
This quote applies to many circumstances in the world of business strategy and execution. Countless hours are spent conducting market research and competitive analysis, studying the size of the total addressable market, developing board level strategy presentations, creating long range plans, defining OKRs, and all sorts of other important activities related to strategy and planning.
Interestingly, it’s rare that a proportional amount of time is spent studying an organization’s readiness to execute on the chosen strategy. More often than not, it’s our experience that the most significant challenge isn’t developing the strategy, but executing it. When we talk to clients about this reality, most whole-heartedly agree, but very few organizations have the capabilities to accurately and objectively assess their own ability to execute the strategy that they worked so carefully to develop. Through our work with numerous organizations on this challenge, we’ve identified 3 critical factors that must be evaluated, measured, and managed for an organization to successfully execute a strategy.
What must be present to execute on a well-developed strategy?
First and foremost is Clarity. By clarity, we don’t mean clarity among the executives who have developed and sweated over the process of building the strategy; we mean clarity on the part of those charged with execution. It’s easy to be clear about something you yourself have developed and spent time considering. It’s much more difficult to be clear when a strategy is merely explained to you, and you haven’t had the time or opportunity to reflect on it. I’ve never met a CEO who isn’t at some level frustrated by their inability to get the people in their organization to understand what the strategy is. Clarity isn’t created by more PowerPoint slides, it’s created by an opportunity for execution owners to question, challenge, and stretch the strategy so that they ultimately own it. When this happens, they are clear on it. And of course, the ultimate measure is whether they themselves can explain it to their teams. When they can, you know the strategy is clear.
The next critical element is Alignment. At Trium, we make a distinction between alignment and agreement. It’s not essential that everyone agree. Rather, it’s essential that they support it with their best energy – as though they’ve agreed with it after appropriate debates and dialogues have occurred. This does not mean false alignment, it means understanding specifically that execution is not a democratic process. What’s most important is that people emotionally support the path even when they don’t fully agree with it. Alignment is essential for execution and simply means people will get in line behind the strategy and lead its execution, regardless of initial misgivings or concerns.
The third essential and often overlooked component is Trust. A brilliant and clear strategy that leaders are aligned behind will not thrive in a system where trust levels are low. Almost all strategies require some degree of resource optimization. This inevitably leads to difficult trade-offs, which can only be managed when people understand and trust one another. Stephen Covey refers to this as “execution at the speed of trust.” When we help our clients prepare for execution, we identify where trust levels aren’t sufficient and take proactive steps to build trust between the executives who have the greatest interdependencies.
Clarity + Alignment + Trust = Execution Readiness
This formula is tried and true. If you have a strategy that you believe in, take the time to ensure you have the conditions for successful execution. Depending on what you discover regarding the degree of clarity, alignment and trust present in the system, and the proportions of issues present in each, there are a variety of things you can do: