In an increasingly uncertain business environment of today, we often remember what John Kotter, the former professor at Harvard Business School and noted leadership expert quotes about strategy. He says “Strategy should be viewed as a dynamic force that constantly seeks opportunities, identifies initiatives that will capitalize on them, and completes those initiatives swiftly and efficiently.” Then why do good strategies fail so often?
When a company fails to deliver a promise, it says the real problem is with the strategy; but fundamentally strategies most often fail because they aren’t executed well. In reality, Execution is the key. Senior executives recognize the importance of strategy implementation, but a majority admits that their companies fall short. We often invest more time in getting the credit of making a strategy and lose focus on its execution. A great strategy alone won't win a game or a battle. It is seen that execution driven companies adapt faster than the other because they are closer to the situation. Remember no matter how great your idea is, if you can’t execute it, you are no different from someone without an idea.
So, how do we solve the muddle to balance strategy and its execution?
Let us hear a story of what happened at Microsoft in the year or two just before the iPhone came out. Microsoft’s chairman Bill Gates handed over a critical task to Steve Ballmer for creating a copycat device to forestall Cupertino’s market dominance. Steve Ballmer delegated the job to his next line of leaders. All the senior VPs under him had good budgets, big teams of engineers and millions of dollars of R&D budget. However, all of these combined together could not give them what they had planned for.
What could have gone wrong?
Many experts believed that the combined failure was a result of the existing ‘stack ranking’ system in Microsoft. The company followed a system in which managers were forced to grade employee performance on the curve. Regardless of individual performance, employees had to be ranked as ‘below average’ or ‘poor’. As a result of stack ranking, Microsoft’s top talents were wary of the existing competition and surrounded themselves with employees who would make them look better by comparison. There was a lack of emotionally incisive leadership which prompted employees to fall back on the basic human instinct of self preservation. The ‘survival strategy’ for employees spelled the demise of the corporate strategy. Later, reports surfaced that Microsoft had abandoned stack ranking and three months later Ballmer too stepped down as CEO of Microsoft.
The number one reason for the success of strategic initiatives at any organization is involvement, engagement and constant support driven by a collective emotional incisive culture. The C-suite attention is must in this regard. Majority of managers admit that individual projects to implement strategy do not typically obtain the necessary senior level sponsorship and lacks collective emotional allegiance that inevitably decreases the ability to implement strategy successfully. It is hence, pertinent to identify these five top emotion-based barriers which come in the way of strategy implementation.
- Information Hoarding - A situation where no one wants to be the bearer of bad news is often witnessed where there is a tendency to hoard information causing mistrust among team members and leaders. Low sharing of useful and timely information comes to leaders’ attention only when it is too late.
- Lack of collective accountability - While creating strategic plans, it is must to ensure that every goal and objective needs to be owned by the team . You may also want to include co-owners to guarantee everyone who is expected to contribute on the goal and must be accountable. Accountability isn’t about having someone to blame. Instead, it is about having someone to own and take the lead on certain objectives. When it is not clear who owns different parts of the strategy, it is very easy for goals to slip through the cracks and miss the deadlines.
- Missing in action of C-suite executives - Leaders need to demonstrate their own willingness and ability to change before asking it from others. Communication for intellectual understanding does not elicit emotional engagement, hence when leaders fail to inspire the collectivism towards a common goal, each team will tend to veer off in its own direction. Employees begin to work in silos and integration is halted.
- Choosing the right leader for the intended change - Most companies lack the skills or fail to deploy the right personnel needed for strategy implementation. Executives who are receptive to the subtle, non-verbal signs of collective emotions are more likely to have the credibility required to lead strategic change. Sadly, such leaders are still few and far between.
- Lack of honesty - Executing a strategy is hard as it is usually over and above business-as-usual. Hence, people need to invest their time, energy and emotions into something with no guarantee of success. When teams pay lip-service to the direction of the plan without being honest of speaking for things they are not happy about, it poses a major hurdle. Alternatively, not feeling empowered that their views will be listened to needs to be addressed.
In short, the problem is never with how good a strategy is; it’s all about the way emotions are channelized collectively towards a common goal shared by all. So next time a strategy of yours goes belly up, asks yourself, Is it really the strategy that is at fault? Or does the problem lie with how you might have executed it? Remember success doesn't necessarily come from only breakthrough innovation but equally from flawless execution. Make the changes you need, and try again.