Every business leader knows the importance of strategic plans to a company’s success and many have invested considerable time, human capital, and other resources to develop one. While many organisations have taken the steps necessary to develop a strategic plan, many struggle with execution of the plan.
Long term plans are, more often than not, inflexible and are not easily adaptable to the constantly evolving needs of a business. Leaders, therefore, find themselves faced with the twin challenges of executing ideas and strategies.
The first challenge of execution is how to narrow their focus to only the most critical priorities. This is especially challenging in a work environment where innovation is highly prized and good ideas abound. Without focus, however, leaders and their teams can easily get caught up in the whirlwind of daily operations required to keep the business going, and cannot succeed.
The second challenge of execution is how to implement necessary changes that require people to change their behavior. Every leader, whether in charge of a small team or big company, will attest to the fact that no significant result is attainable unless people change their behavior. The catch here is that changing human behavior is not easy.
When put together, these challenges can thwart even the strongest efforts towards achieving set business goals. So how does one execute their strategic priorities to get results, and effect change in human behavior to achieve their business goals?
In economics, the law of diminishing returns refers to the point at which the level of profits gained is less than the amount of money or energy invested. In business leadership, this law plays out as the more one tries to do, the less they actually accomplish. Often times, ambitious leaders want to do more instead of less, agreeing to do more than they or their teams have the capacity to execute.
The first discipline of execution, therefore, is focusing efforts on one or two very important goals instead of giving mediocre effort to several goals. This goal must contain a clearly measurable result and be communicated to the entire team as the goal that matters the most. By focusing on less, a leader can empower their teams to achieve more and drive their businesses forward.
A well-known example of a company that has successfully done this is Google Inc. which created the holding company, Alphabet Inc. in 2015 to narrow Google’s scope by moving subsidiaries to Alphabet. Alphabet has since shed investments that were less profitable like Google Compare and smart home company, Revolv, and doubled down on promising ventures to build them into profitable businesses. This restructuring has allowed Google to focus on its core products such as Google Search, YouTube, and the Android mobile operating system.
Because every business is equipped with limited time and resources, it is important to find and use real leverage for great results. To do this, it is important to apply the second discipline of execution which is to give disproportionate focus to lead measures, the behaviors or activities that lead to the accomplishment of a goal, and less on results or outcomes.
For most leaders, this goes against their instincts as they are often appraised against results. Too much focus on the results, however, is counter-productive and much like driving a car while looking in the rearview mirror.
But because lead measures are predictive in nature and can be influenced, focusing and acting on them will improve performance and the ultimate results as team members can close the gap between what they should be doing and what they are actually doing. A classic example in execution of this discipline is Safaricom’s strategy to focus on massive investment in building infrastructure and demand-driven products and innovations that has made the company the dominant and most profitable Kenyan telco.
A smart team leader will come up with the right lead measures by engaging their team members in dialogue on what can be done better or differently in order to achieve the set goal(s).
The third discipline of execution is engagement. Engagement, here, refers to winning the commitment of team members towards achieving the set goal(s) by moving away from authority-driven compliance to passion-driven commitment by keeping a scorecard.
Anyone who has participated in a competitive team sport knows the effect a scoreboard has on the performance of the team. It’s not enough for a leader to keep a spreadsheet or similar tracking system for themselves. The scoreboard should be developed by the entire team and displayed where it is visible to all. This way, team members will see what adjustments need to be made, and understand the connection between their performance and the goal. This not only gets a team in the game, but motivates them to play to win.
Accountability is the fourth discipline of execution, and where the crux of execution happens. Regardless of how great a plan is, it will never see the light of day without accountability and follow through with consistent action. The type of accountability presented here is not between a team member and their supervisor, but one where all team members are accountable to each other.
When team members see their colleagues consistently following through on their commitments, they learn that the people they work with can be trusted to do the work. Performance will, therefore, improve as team members realize that their individual contributions are significant to the accomplishment of the overall goal.
When combined, these four disciplines will result in better strategy results through a clear, focused and tracking execution process that realizes the shift from planning to doing.
(Ian Ngethe is the CEO of Raiser Resource Group, a performance development organization thatis launching a global execution practice known as The 4 Disciplines of Execution (4DX) in Kenya. 4DX is a practical methodology that helps leaders and organizations execute their most important strategic priorities for strengthened operational and execution excellence)