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The Whiteboard: How to move from strategy to execution

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In my last column, I explored one aspect of strategic management. That was management of the annual cycle that aligns strategic plans, budgets, department goals and individual goals. That is half of the strategic management story. The other half is management of execution.

You’ve probably heard the word execution thrown around quite a bit in the last decade. It has become a cliché not only in management but in sports, where poor execution is regularly blamed for unexpected losses. In the context of strategic management, what exactly is execution?

To answer that question, I turn to one of my teachers, in fact, the first instructor I ever had on strategic management. That was Ram Charan, consultant and Harvard Business School professor, who coauthored the book “Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done.” In the book Ram wrote, “Execution is a systematic process of rigorously discussing hows and whats, questioning, tenaciously following through, and ensuring accountability.”

If execution is a systematic process, we must approach it in a systematic way. To begin, we ensure that our strategic plans include detailed tactics and accountability. That is, for each strategy or strategic initiative, we define - in the detail - each action that must be taken, who will be responsible, and when it is to be completed. We create project plans with clear milestones and accountability.

We name an overall owner of each strategy or strategic initiative, who is the project leader, and who has overall accountability. The owner is responsible for publishing metrics every month. These metrics include measures of progress against schedule milestones and measures of the effect of the strategy. They give us visibility into whether the execution is getting done in a timely manner and whether the strategy is working.

With these detailed plans and metrics in place and the key players identified, management can begin “rigorously discussing hows and whats, questioning, tenaciously following through, and ensuring accountability.”

At least once every month management holds a meeting in which the primary, if not only topic, is strategic management. The attendees are the owners of the strategies and/or strategic initiatives and the top management of the company. We want everyone who has overall accountability for execution in the room, along with any other leaders who control people or other resources critical to executing the plan.

Richard Randall
Richard Randall - ()

The owner of each strategy or initiative gives a status report, including progress against the plan milestones and the metrics, which show if the plan is working or not. Questions are asked. When things aren’t getting done or the plan isn’t working, strategy owners are expected to come to the meeting with countermeasures, i.e. proposals for getting back on track. We don’t hold the meetings so problems can be reported. We hold the meetings so problems can be solved.

That is one reason it is important that all top managers attend the meetings. If things are hung up because of resource constraints, red tape, turf battles or other foot-dragging, we want the people in the room who can solve those problems on the spot.

We also want those people in the room because when a strategy isn’t working we must do more than question the execution. We must question the research and assumptions that led to the choice of the strategy. If a strategy isn’t working because research or assumptions were wrong, or because the world around us has changed in unexpected ways, we need to rethink the strategy and adapt to the new reality.

Strategic planning and execution go hand-in-hand. Strategic management encompasses both disciplines, ensuring a powerful focus on future success.

Richard Randall is founder and president of management-consulting firm New Level Advisors in Springettsbury Township, York County. Email him at info@newleveladvisors.com.

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