Ahead of the new IMI Executive Series, we sat down with Trish Gorman, lead designer for the new short programme Leading Strategy Execution, to ask how organisations should be executing strategies effectively in a constantly changing business environment.
When it comes to strategy execution, what do you think keeps CEOs awake at night?
I think two major things. Firstly, the possibility that they could be disrupted at any time. The volatile, complex, and ambiguous world we live in right now means their industry might not even follow the same riles tomorrow.
And, even if everything does remain constant, it doesn’t mean they get a night’s sleep. They then have the hard job of change, which is what strategy execution really is. So, they have to engage, inspire and all the other tough roles a leader has.
So, if it changes, you got problems, if it’s disrupted, you got problems and if it stays the same… you got problems.
What are the really common missteps an organisation makes while executing strategic plans?
Typically, they either over complicate or over simplify. The over simplification is, for example, saying ‘let’s all cut costs, go’ and assuming it will all roll out is a common mistake. The leader may have heard in a case study that Gillette had reduced overheads dramatically through simple messaging but not realised the amount of work that goes on in the background for that message to be effectively carried out.
The other is overcomplication where you get way down in the weeds and try to make everyone understand every step along the way. This is particularly vulnerable to disruption, because then you have all these details that you have to throw away.
There have been studies that suggest it is rare for a leader to be good at both strategy planning and strategy execution – does this ring true to you?
Strategic planning does take a different set of tools and a different way of thinking than actual execution. We find if people can let go of that planning mentality – which has a lot to do with assuming stability and trying to control things – and get into the implementation mode you can begin to increase your toolset there very quickly with just a few interventions.
Shifting your mindset is what’s really important – we call it ‘strategy in action’.
Communication is self-evidently a vital part of any strategy execution, but how should a leader communicate a strategy to their organisation both at the outset and throughout the process? Any key characteristics?
First of all, you are right that that communication is vitally important, but I like to shift from talking about ‘communication’ to ‘dialogue’. No matter how trained we are we always hear ‘communication’ and interpret it as sending a message.
The first thing is that it’s not just sending a message, it’s about dialogue. Listening, interpreting, translating, making meaning, making narrative – it’s not just making announcements all the time. Creating a culture of dialogue is really important.
The second thing is repeating your messages and giving people many opportunities for speaking and listening to you. If you’re listening to someone for the first time, do not assume they are going to immediately conjure up all the problems, feelings and challenges they feel with the plan. Give them time and chances – execution is an iterative process.
How does a leader get accurate information back from the front-lines during a strategy execution process?
That’s a key question. Right now we have so much data that there has become an emphasis on getting quantitative data get, and that’s important, but it’s equally important to get the qualitative feedback.
You’re looking to see if your customers are satisfied are not, how you measure up against competitors and alternatives, are your employees and other stakeholder satisfied the way things are going – this needs qualitative and quantitative data, as well as leading and lagging indicators.
For leaders, we call the process of getting the right information ‘continuous learning loops’. The word ‘learning’ is important but we’re not just getting the feedback, we’re learning. We’re doubling down on what works and abandoning what doesn’t.
All really effective people that lead strategy execution are time travellers. They’re in the future thinking about where they might be, in the past learning what hey have done, and in the present making decisions.
Dr. Trish Gorman is a lead designer on the new IMI short programme for senior leaders, Leading Strategy Execution. This interview is an annotated version an episode from the IMI Talking Leadership podcast.