My Observations on What Works

Is strategy more important than execution? In a recent LinkedIn group discussion there were good arguments from both camps plus those who thought both were equally important. The arguments for strategy being more important make the case that a mediocre strategy well executed will not produce the desired results. The arguments for execution believe that if you can’t execute a good strategy then it also won’t produce the desired results. In his 2010 Harvard Business Review article The Execution Trap, Roger L. Martin argues that it’s a pointless distinction and is damaging to organizations. I agree with Mr. Martin. The more important question is “how can we execute our strategies better?” Based on my experience, there are at least five ways to improve strategy.

1. Understand Your Customer

Deeply understanding customers sets the foundation for a winning strategy. Unfortunately we think we understand our customers but in reality haven’t taken the time to truly listen and understand their needs, wants and desires. What problems do we truly solve for them? Do our products and services help them to be faster, cheaper and better? Market research and Voice of the Customer are valuable for established markets but new markets or startups there has to be a focus on finding the right customer who has a problem your product or service solves and who values it enough to pay for it.

2. Intentional Planning

Who has time to plan today? After all we have to deal with today’s crisis. Carving out time for team planning sessions seems impossible. It tends to fall into Stephen Covey’s “Important but Not Urgent” quadrant. However, it is the most effective way for us to get out of crisis mode. Set clear goals for the organization, establish metrics for measuring success and hold regular planning meetings to review and adjust plans as necessary. The Balanced Scorecard has proven to be a valuable strategic planning and management tool and is adaptable for any organization.

3. Over Communication

Senior executives are highly dependent on managers for communicating strategy and getting organizational “buy-in”. Taking time to communicate helps to ensure that the strategic vision won’t be “lost in translation”. Considerable time and effort is taken to put people, processes and technology in place for a strategic initiative yet very often little time is taken for communication. Over communicate until you start hearing the workers in your organization singing the same tune. Schedule regular employee communications meeting and establish “open door” policies to encourage conversations about strategy and execution.

4. Eliminate Waste

It’s interesting to observe that we often spend more time doing things over than doing things right from the start. There are numerous quality management initiatives such as Six Sigma, Lean Six Sigma, Agile, and the Toyota Production System. All rely on basic quality improvement tools such as Pareto charts, FMEA, and Ishikawa diagrams which help to make us more efficient whether that is in the form of time savings, minimizing effort or reducing costs. These quality methods and tools can be applied to any business. Start by mapping critical business processes and look for ways to eliminate delays, reduce cycle time, and optimize throughput.

5. Make Learning Part of Your Culture

Back in the 1990’s, Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline made the radical assertion (back then) that the only sustainable advantage an organization was its ability to learn faster than the competition. Today, the global economy has become highly dependent on knowledge workers and those organizations who can consistently attract, retain and grow the best and brightest talent have proven to be the winners. Develop a culture that values learning, informed risk taking, lessons learned, and sharing of knowledge. More importantly, start doing it yourself.

These five approaches have proven successful in organizations I’ve worked in and I believe that all of them are necessary for successful strategy and execution. What has made a difference for you? Please share!