Why execution is strategic

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​A lot of energy is put into the finessing of the strategy articulation, yet it’s the power of impactful execution that will outscore it in the end.​

It’s interesting that once the strategy launch is completed, energy behind it decreases and so does management time dedicated to direction setting. It's as if the strategy is expected to take place flawlessly per se, just because it was agreed and launched.

In reality, the strategy development process isn’t usually the reason why many business efforts fail. Execution is where you are likely to find the roots of business performance issues.

Plans and initiatives that are supposed to happen don’t happen, and the fine thinking behind the strategic choices is diluted by poor execution. One of the problems is that execution is often regarded as tactics, while it is the part of the strategic process that shapes it and brings it to life.

And execution is all about people. Just like in the Marriott philosophy: “Take care of your employees and they’ll take care of your customers.” Human capital is central in making sure that strategy translates into outcomes and good HR leadership can make a difference.

So, what are good practices for impactful execution of the strategy? Assuming that quality of the people, organisation design and capabilities are fit for purpose, here are my top three points from experience in the executive room and most recently as an advisor.

Simplicity and focus

It seems intuitive, but it’s not. Strategic documents make sure nothing gets left out, thus killing focus and impact. Longer strategic lists of choices achieve less than short, memorable ones. If your employees are unlikely to remember all you have put in the strategy document, it means it is too detailed, too complex or both.

Leaders have an inescapable attraction for complexity. They try to plan for too many outcomes at the same time. In reality there are always few game changing goals that will materially grow the business and several other activities that, while essential, will not really make you beat competition.

Separating the two and focussing the organisation’s line of sight on breakthrough is a key job of leadership.

Engagement and momentum

You don’t want your people to think about strategy only during the weeks of its launch. In todays’ fast changing world, digital communications are an extraordinary enabler to repeat key messages and keep the organisation’s attention high on the critical choices that guide the business.

A sense of urgency, engagement, frequent progress reviews are key. The job of leadership here is to keep each individual and team focused on achieving tangible results that bring the strategy to life: post and celebrate achievements, outlaw inertia, keep the eyes on the critical goals you are after without getting side-tracked by the small stuff.

Accountability and metrics

In sports, like in business. it’s hard to get progress without the visibility of performance metrics and accountability for results. Recently, this has become challenging in matrixed organisations where the effective use of teams has morphed into collective decision making - anybody can say no and it’s not clear who can ultimately say yes.

Teams, in a high accountability system, must declare explicitly the practical outcomes they are after, their standards of excellence and how results tie to the strategy. The must also define each member’s responsibility and expected contribution and track and analyse their output for continuous improvement.

While leaders often focus on inspiring visions and strategy development, excellence in execution is possibly their most important job. Creating a high performing execution environment needs deliberate investment in human capital and HR has a critical role to play in making it happen.

Giovanni Giordano is former group HR director at BAT, former chief corporate officer (global HR, legal, IT) at Ferrero and former HR director, global health and wellbeing at Procter & Gamble

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