The execution imperative: The gap-closing trade secrets of companies that consistently get things done

In the book Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done, co-authors Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan essentially wrote that, “It’s all in the execution.” Perhaps the most important step in executing well is to build a bridge that connects the vision and the strategy to the execution plan. Readers will learn what those bridges are and how they can build them to last.

Thomas Edison famously said, “Vision without execution is hallucination.” It’s true. And as the hallucinations of countless business leaders have proved, knowing what you want to do or where you want the company to be may be less than half the battle.

Not so many years ago strategy was king. Leaders immersed themselves in planning how best to achieve their company’s goals. They assumed that this strategizing would pay off. And yet, for too many organizations, results from these well-crafted visions were very few and far between. Quite simply, they couldn’t execute.

Now the business world has shifted its focus to execution—execution of initiatives and the consistent delivery of results. If an organization can’t execute, nothing else matters: not the most solid, well thought-out strategy, not the most innovative business model, not even the invention of technology that could transform an industry.

So, why—given the buzz about having a clear and compelling vision and a realistic strategy—can’t some leaders execute despite having a sound strategic planning process in place and teams made up of smart, experienced professionals. To help answer this question, our team at Onpoint Consulting set out to gather information about what it takes to execute plans and initiatives effectively. We designed a study to answer three questions:

  • Is there a gap between an organization’s ability to formulate a vision and strategy and achieve business results?
  • What differentiates organizations that are more effective at executing?
  • What can leaders do to enhance their organization’s ability to close the execution gap?

Conventional wisdom may not be that wise

We expected a percentage of leaders to report a gap between their organization’s ability to formulate a vision and strategy and its ability to deliver results. And our suspicions were confirmed: nearly half of the 409 leaders we surveyed (49 percent) believed that there was a strategy-execution gap in their organizations.

But here’s what really surprised us: a staggering 64 percent of leaders who indicated that there was an execution gap also lacked confidence that it could be closed. The data suggest that most organizations simply aren’t set up to execute well.

If you’re like many leaders, you’ve bought into the conventional wisdom about strategy execution. It goes something like this: communicate an inspiring vision and realistic strategies, make sure you have an engaged and committed workforce with the right skills, and focus on the customer to ensure success. But while it sounds good, evidence indicates that something is missing from the equation.

It’s true that these baseline practices are necessary and relevant. In fact, most of the organizations in our study—those limited by a strategy-execution gap and those who aren’t—have these practices in place. Unfortunately, all too often, they are not sufficient.

The Five Bridges: Gap-closers that make the difference

We discovered that there are five factors that set apart the organizations with the best performance results and those that are more effective at execution.  We’ll refer to them as ‘The Five Bridges’ because they help companies traverse the execution gap.  So here’s the question: If these five factors are prerequisites for successful execution, what sets the best apart from the rest?

Well, in companies whose leaders did report gaps, the presence of these factors contributed to a confidence that the gap could be closed. If you have them in place in your company, you are more likely to be able to keep the strategy-execution gap from forming, or to close the gap once it exists. The five bridges are described below.

1. The Ability to Manage Change. We all know that change is inevitable. However, despite their best efforts, many companies can’t seem to translate that knowledge into positive action. That’s a dangerous shortcoming. Embracing the spirit of innovation and change can help you reach new levels of success, while being rigid and unwilling to change can cause serious, perhaps irreparable, harm.

Make no mistake: If you want to run a successful business, you have to be willing to create and implement innovative strategies and adjust to changes in the market. That’s true of small businesses and international corporations alike. If you’re not flexible enough to bend with the winds of change, you’ll snap in half when the first storm comes along.

2. A Structure That Supports Execution. Our research found that striking the right balance between centralization and decentralization differentiates top-performing companies.  While many organizations emphasize developing a realistic strategy and engaging employees, a problem develops when leaders assume that the current organizational structure will support the new strategy. Sometimes it’s just not true.

Don’t assume that organizational structure is just about efficiency. The right structure can also enhance accountability, coordination and communication, and ensure that decisions are being made close to the action. These are key components of getting things done.

3. Involve the Right People In The Right Decisions. Involving employees in decision-making is controversial. Some leaders view it as a sign of weakness while others fear giving up control. In reality, though, the world is too complex for any leader to go it alone. To make good decisions, you must seek out the perspectives of a wide range of people.  Involving people in decisions gets them focused on generating solutions to problems rather than complaining or waiting to be told what to do.

Your employees shouldn’t feel like they exist only to help your company make a profit. They need to feel respected as key players with valid viewpoints. They should be involved in decisions that affect them and should be encouraged to share their thoughts and concerns. If your employees don’t have a sense of ownership, nothing truly great can occur.

4. Alignment Between Leader Actions and Company Values And Priorities. No company should ever have two sets of values and expectations, one for the leader(s) and one for the employees. When leaders say one thing and do another, business suffers. It might surprise you to learn exactly how much execution depends on the consistency of a leader’s behavior with organizational values and priorities.

People observe the leader to pick up signals about what is important and appropriate. They pattern their behavior after yours. If your behaviour signifies that “We are all in this together,” people are more likely to be motivated and to go the extra mile. When you expect employees to behave a certain way, you’d better do the same. A “Do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do,” attitude sends mixed messages and breeds resentment.

If employees at your company start asking “Why is it necessary for us but not for them?” don’t be surprised when they resist change—or when performance falls short of expectations.

5. Company-wide Coordination and Cooperation.  Most employees have good intentions. They want to cooperate with colleagues. Yet ensuring that decisions and actions are coordinated across organizational boundaries requires more than faith and words. It takes shared goals and clearly defined roles. These provide the foundation upon which cooperation and coordination can be built. In addition, people must be held accountable—for fulfilling commitments and taking responsibility for doing their jobs properly. This requires a combination of direct leader behavior and systems that encourage and reinforce the appropriate behavior.

Getting the construction project underway: Six Bridge Builders

The more Bridges you have in place, the more likely you are to reach your goals. Similarly, the absence of any one bridge could derail your efforts.  But how do you go about building them? First, get comfortable with the fact that it’s a never-ending process. Then, put six time-tested tools and techniques in place—we’ll call them Bridge Builders—and implement them very carefully.

1. Create and Use Action Plans. Effective execution starts with a plan. The ability to execute effectively is undermined early in the implementation process for several reasons. Few people use action plans to help manage the many initiatives required to achieve a vision; senior leaders fail to hold people accountable for developing and using action plans; and when an action plan is developed it is not always aligned with the projects that are critical for delivering results.

Make no mistake: action plans are the cornerstone of effective execution. Rather than being seen as a burden and a waste of time, action plans need to be recognized for what they can do: clarify expectations and accountability, align individuals and teams around a common objective, coordinate the effort of individuals and groups, ensure adequate resources are allocated to a project, and help identify and take action on problems before they derail the initiative.

Action plans by themselves won’t execute for you. But, in conjunction with the other Bridge Builders, they increase the likelihood that you’ll execute well and get the results you’re expecting.

2.Expect and Achieve Top Performance.  In today’s competitive business environment, every member of a team must work at their full potential. Incredible as it may seem, having high expectations and believing that people are capable of meeting your expectations actually result in improved performance. The evidence is overwhelming.   When we believe people are capable we treat them like they are competent. In turn, they come to believe they are skilled. Unfortunately, the opposite is true as well. This powerful dynamic starts when your expectations (high or low) are manifested in your behavior.

The real challenge of using high expectations to improve performance and enhance execution comes not when we meet someone for the first time, but when we have a preconceived bias based on stereotypes or observation of past poor performance. If we are to execute effectively, we must stop perpetuating self-sustaining prophecies. We must stop ignoring people who we believe are not capable or reinforce their self-concept through our comments (or lack thereof).

We can enhance the self-esteem of our lower performing or average employees by assuming value, focusing on what they do well, setting realistic but challenging goals, providing recognition and feedback, and creating a supportive environment where it is safe to try new things. Ultimately, as they show improvement, we come to believe that they are capable of meeting or exceeding standard levels of performance.

3. Hold People Accountable. A high level of accountability often looks a lot like “shows initiative.” At work, people who have a high level of accountability will take initiative to ensure the success of a project, provide early warning of potential problems, and try to resolve a problem even if it is not their fault.

One reason we hesitate to tackle the accountability problem in a timely way is a lack of clarity on what the person is accountable for in the first place. Discussions about accountability can be straightforward and potential conflicts less intense when everyone knows ahead of time what is expected and how success will be measured. Establishing this clarity also reduces the likelihood of having to have the discussions in the first place.

Being accountable comes naturally to some people.  For many of us, however, the more natural tendency is to justify and explain why we are not responsible when things go wrong.  Although you cannot change human nature, those of us in a managerial or leadership role can help create an environment that enables others to operate at a higher level of responsibility. The key is to set people up for success by clarifying expectations up front and building in time to make course corrections before the deadline. This helps avoid the need to make excuses.

When targets are missed, asking three questions can solve the problem: What can you do right now to get back on track? How did you contribute to this situation? What can you do in the future to ensure this will not happen again? This approach doesn’t try to pinpoint blame and helps minimizes the threat to the person’s self-image. The three questions, along with techniques to deal with a defensive response effectively, also minimizes the need to make excuses as you and the other person collaborate on finding a solution.

4. Enhance Decision Quality and Acceptance.  There are three things you can do to improve the quality of the decisions.

a) Make sure that people closest to the action are making the decisions.  This can require a change in organizational structure and, when this is not possible, empowering people and holding them accountable for taking the initiative and addressing issues when they arise.

b) Involve the right people in decisions. This helps ensure that you include perspectives and experiences other than your own and also helps fill in relevant data that you might not possess.

c) Use an objective, systematic process so that you won’t let emotion or bias cloud the issues or simply default to the kinds of decisions you’ve made in the past. This will also force you to incorporate risk assessment in your decision-making.

These last two actions ensure that we have access to a range of perspectives and information that might not otherwise be available to us, and increases the likelihood that we will be more thoughtful when making choices.

5. Facilitate Change Readiness. Effective execution, especially of large-scale strategic initiatives, frequently requires a change in behavior on the part of those who you depend on to deliver the expected results.

Some of the most powerful tools and models for creating behavior change come from work being done with people trying to change addictive behaviors like smoking, overeating, and drug abuse. The lessons learned from this and other research can guide our behavior and prescribe the actions we should take to facilitate change in others. These lessons demonstrate 3 things: that leader behavior has a direct impact on the level of resistance demonstrated by the other person; that people are much less likely to make a behavior change successfully if they are forced to move to action before they are ready, and that there are specific strategies to help move people through the levels of change, though they must be used at the right time.

6.Enhance Opportunities to Cooperate and Collaborate.  Organizations are complex structures with many interdependencies. We must rely on others to help get things done and meet our objectives. This means that cooperation and collaboration are critical to our success. The challenge you face in the workplace is to ensure that the conditions that create and sustain cooperation and collaboration are in place.

Cooperation and collaboration are facilitated by clear communication, shared goals and clearly defined roles. These conditions help encourage and motivate people to focus on the group’s best interest without feeling that they are trading off their own interests. Once in place, however, sustaining cooperation is a delicate task. People will still have different points of view about how and when things should happen. Your ability to influence others constructively and gain their support is critical to maintaining cooperation. Losing their cooperation is caused by mistakes and miscommunication and if naturally occurring and healthy disagreements are not well managed.

The bottom line

Today, most leaders understand that an energizing, well-conceived vision and a realistic strategy are critical to success. They appreciate the need for highly engaged employees with the skills required to do the job, for superior products and services and for listening to the customer.  Yet, even when these core factors are in place, many organizations are still not able to deliver consistent results. The reason is that although essential, these factors are clearly only prerequisites.

Companies and managers that are the best at execution also create operating plans that are coordinated across departments and levels, expect and encourage top performance from everyone, hold people accountable for results, make high-quality decisions by ensuring that the right people are talking about the right things at the right time, and facilitate individual change readiness.

Execution is challenging. Yet, if other companies can build and maintain the Bridges that close the execution gap, so can yours. Of course, you won’t bridge the execution gap overnight, and once built, the Bridges won’t be self-sustaining. Still, getting this “construction project” under way is an important step in the right direction.