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Why Strategy Execution Unravels—and What to Do About It.

Have you ever found yourself in a team that you thought had the potential to execute your company’s strategy, but experienced delays and frustrations?

Organisational capability may be part of the problem, but often it’s due to a lack of cohesion in the C-suite. Executives can be aligned in voice at the table, but not aligned when it comes to the implementation of the strategy. If this sounds familiar, consider how you might develop your leadership culture, rather than focusing on further defining your strategy and systems.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article1 , it was found that executing a strategy would “typically consist of translating strategy into objectives, cascading those objectives down the hierarchy, measuring progress, and rewarding performance.” And when asked how they would improve execution, the executives: “cite tools, such as management by objectives and the balanced scorecard, that are designed to increase alignment between activities and strategy up and down the chain of command.”

In these managers’ minds, execution equals vertical alignment, so a failure to execute implies a breakdown in the processes to link strategy action at every level in the organisation, rather than looking across the leadership team and their functional areas.

Managers were asked how frequently they could count on their peers to deliver on promises and found that only 50% researched say they can rely on other areas to deliver most of the time. And paradoxically, it was found that when managers can’t rely on colleagues in other functions and units, they compensate with a host of their own dysfunctional behaviours that undermine overall execution.

For some, this raises the issue of accountability and of how to get executive teams to engage in more robust discussion around alignment, where KRA’s, their individual and departmental performance metrics and personal agendas are more transparent. Then once agreed, to hold each other to account for the delivery on their commitments.

Whilst important to ensure clarity of accountability, perhaps the focus should also be on building executive cohesion. Identify where leaders and managers are not really connecting and collaborating with each other and then begin to generate an appreciation of the importance of cohesion and a sense of responsibility to one another. This is consistent with the view of a T-shaped manager2. This is a manager who collaborates to share knowledge freely across the organization (the horizontal part of the “T”) while remaining fiercely committed to individual business unit performance (the vertical part). When this approach becomes instilled in the C suite, the leadership culture can create horizontal value, which will:

  • Increase efficiency through the transfer of best practices
  • Improve the quality of decisions through peer advice
  • Grow revenue through shared expertise
  • Develop new business opportunities through the cross-pollination of ideas
  • Make bold strategic moves through the promise of well-coordinated implementation

These cultural shifts can be reinforced by the systems, but the systems will not work without first having the culture to drive them.

So how strong is your sense of executive cohesion – being one team? How well do members of your executive team assure that cross-functional cohesion cascades through their middle management teams? Is the whole company ‘one team’?

Steven McInnes

1Homkes R, Sull C & Sull D. Why Strategy Execution Unravels—and What to Do About It. Harvard Business Review, March 2015
2Morten T. Hansen and Bolko Von Oetinger. Are You Managing To a ‘T’? Time To Break With Tradition. Harvard Business Review, May 14, 2001