“Most leaders would agree that they’d be better off having an average strategy with superb execution than a superb strategy with poor execution.” Stephen Covey
If there’s one thing in business that separates the winners from the losers, it’s execution. Great executors regularly deliver on initiatives and, as a result, hit strategic targets year after year. By contrast, companies that can’t execute will miss their targets and fail to deliver on strategic objectives.
Problems with execution are incredibly common. A 2017 report from the Economist Intelligence Unit found that nearly 90% of respondents felt they failed to achieve all their strategic goals because they don’t execute well.
Given results like this, it’s no wonder that so many business leaders over the years have stressed the importance of execution.
Unfortunately, execution can often be an area of weakness for small and medium enterprises. For example, we find that many of the clients we begin working with suffer from what we call an ‘execution gap’. That is:
They are unable to get things done, either as individuals or through their people and teams.
They are failing to achieve their goals, not because they have the wrong strategy or targets, but because they can’t execute on their strategy operationally.
There are usually a number of reasons for this:
Placing more importance on getting the strategy right in theory, than on building organisational capability.
Having a poor understanding of best practice execution fundamentals, usually due to a lack of training, experience and/or an execution ‘mindset’.
In the specific case of smaller businesses, a lack of funding and talent is also a major problem. Execution starts with people. They make execution possible by linking strategy to operations. Unfortunately, too much is too often left on the shoulders of the owners.
Thankfully, excellent execution is something that any organisation can build, although it does require commitment. In our experience, the most important practices you need to cultivate are:
Leadership: Leaders need to be self-aware and consciously value execution. Excellent execution begins at the top.
Communication: People can’t deliver on a strategy and achieve priorities if they don’t know what they are. Unfortunately, however, this strategic ‘blind spot’ is common in businesses today. Make sure all employees clearly understand both the strategy and the role they play in delivering it.
Getting the right people in the right roles: Business leaders and managers should always be looking to improve their organisational design. Regularly assessing individuals and aligning them with specific role competencies is a never-ending process that should be highly valued. That means driving continuous improvement in performance management, recruitment and training.
Encouraging the right behaviours: Recruitment, performance management and training programs will deliver the skills. But great executors need to provide motivation as well. Building incentive programs and remuneration packages around execution will encourage the right behaviours and ensure that everyone understands what the organisation values.
Accountability: Make sure the strategic priorities are captured in agreed plans. Then, make people accountable for the deadlines. Time and time again, we see a culture where change is talked about but not achieved. This leads to resentment and discourages good ideas because people feel like the ideas will never be implemented.
There’s no doubt that closing the execution gap is a test that many organisations fail. At the same time, it is challenging, but very achievable. When you put those two realities together, you end up with an important opportunity. The opportunity to more effectively achieve goals and build significant differentiation at the same time.