Execution is the key to competitiveness. Even a suboptimal strategy can be made to work with superior execution while even a great strategy can be rendered suboptimal by inferior execution. There is lot of management literature on planning, strategy and the like but very little on execution. Two books merit mention: the first is “Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done” by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan and the second is “The Four Disciplines of Execution: Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals” by Sean Covey, Jim Huling and Chris McChinsey. Probably, execution is seen as simple as as following a set of instructions or rules embedded in budgets and plans, developed pursuant to goals. The book by Sean Covey focuses on the behavioural aspects of execution, and brings out Focus, leverage, engagement and accountability are considered the four critical disciplines of execution.
Execution at shop floor level or in construction site is rather easy to monitor. However, execution of a business is more challenging due to the involvement of countless agencies and people, both internally and externally, operating under conditions not fully under ones control. One may draw up an SOP for shop floor activity or a PERT/CPM chart for a construction project but would find the idea rather out of place for a business initiative. Programme management has emerged as a discipline for monitoring execution but it only provides a partial and ineffective answer. The reason is simple. Just as quality has to be embedded in production processes and operators, execution has to also be carried out only by people entrusted with execution. Execution is not a monitor’s job, although monitoring may be part of execution, and if carried out by other agencies helpful to execution. This blog post proposes five facets of effective execution.
Execution is the practice of converting a plan into an action to achieve a goal. Execution, therefore, starts with goal setting itself, as Sean Covey’s book argues. If the logic is so clear, why is it that there tend to be huge differences in the execution effectiveness of different individuals or entities? Some attribute ineffective execution to inadequate goal setting and insufficient planning. People subscribing to this view believe that as long as goals and actions are articulated clearly execution would happen automatically. Yet, execution tends to be weak in high-planning companies too. Some believe that execution has a significant behavioural content. Sean Covey’s book proposes that the four key elements of focus, leverage, engagement or accountability can be ensured in teams with appropriate behavioural conditioning. It advocates systemic ownership around key goals with execution itself being both an action and reward.
The planning based view is simplistic while the behaviour based view is elaborate. It is important to understand execution from different viewpoints, align them and integrate them under one execution value chain. At the lowest end, execution can be seen as a series of actions or events. An example of this is organizing a leader summit as an event that aligns the leadership team. However, organization of the event is just a start. At the next higher step, organizers tend to look for outcomes. In this case, successful conclusion with 100 percent participation and no dropouts and with at least 50 percent of participants providing active inputs could be outcomes. Even this, however, is not complete execution. At the next higher level, one would look for results, in terms of new collaborative networks being created or platforms created for post-summit follow-up. Most execution experts believe that the execution is completed with good results.
There are, however, two other important milestones towards the higher end of the execution value chain, namely accomplishment and actualization. Results are metricised numbers of performance. Quarter after quarter companies publish their results, and even if they are in line with goals companies may not have a sense of accomplishment. A sense of accomplishment in execution happens when the executing individuals and teams have sense of ownership, right from goal setting to accomplishment of results. A sense of accomplishment is not the final end, however. A feeling of actualization is the ultimate endpoint of execution. Actualization is a challenging concept, and has been dealt with by the author in his blog Strategy Musings on three occasions: “The Journey of Self-Actualization: A Leadership Process of Discovery, Development and Delivery”, August 28, 2012 (http://cbrao2008.blogspot.in/2012/08/the-journey-of-self-actualization.html), Self-Actualization by One’s Self for Oneself: An Enlightened Process for the Elusive Goal”, April 21, 2013 (http://cbrao2008.blogspot.in/2013/04/self-actualization-by-ones-self-for.html).
If one has to travel the full length of execution value chain, the journey would require leader-follower interactions that focus not merely on any of the transition points of the execution chain but instead focus on the actualization end-point. The leader would need to typically evaluate himself or herself first; what would really fulfill himself or herself. A leader who is considering a leadership position in a turnaround setting would need to introspect or reflect which of the following could be the real trigger for his actualization: revenue, stock price, employee security or hall of fame. While one may say that all of the factors would be reflected in company valuation, the sense of fulfillment could come from completely different factors. It could, for example, be from a sense of learning that he has become a master of turnaround, which he may not be expressed or measured at all. For the employees involved, it may come from stepping that extra mile to give novel suggestions and have the fulfillment of accomplishing them.
A sense of actualization occurs by focusing on transformative goals rather than mundane goals, and by focusing on a few prioritized ones among them, rather than on every one of them. The leader should be able to identify the goals which are predominantly individual dependent, team oriented or business leadership specific. Delivering a lecture in the leader summit is an individual accomplishment while organizing the summit is a team accomplishment. Using the summit to transform the business is a business leadership accomplishment. Leaders need platforms and forums to articulate, prioritize, and focus on actions, and monitor outcomes and results on each of the groups. Once the forums are in place, taking them seriously, and staying engaged is an essential mind-set, for both leaders and followers. Continuous engagement helps in mutual reinforcement of leaders and followers towards fulfilment of goals. It also sets up mutual accountability which is a logical culmination of ownership.
Admittedly, followers are unlikely to have the same uniqueness of perspectives or levels of motivation that leaders would have. Followers are generally a part of larger teams with significant interactive noise. Each team tends to have its own group dynamics in terms of behaviour towards performance. Followers tend to be of two categories; those who are determined to be leaders and those who are content to be followers. It occurs naturally for the first group to be highly execution oriented and for the second group to be passively participative. The relative mix of aspirant leaders and passive followers is not necessarily a driver of relative performance differentials. It does not, for example, follow that if there is a high proportion of aspirant leaders in a group, that group would automatically perform better. On the other hand, such a group could be more fractious and more energy dissipating.
Followers need to reflect on what could make them really a fulfilled part of a group. Some may like their performance to be outshining others in a group while some others may derive happiness from their group being more effective overall. Be that as may, followers usually struggle to arrive at a common understanding of the right dynamics for the group. This is partly due to a lack of understanding as to how group success, rather than individual success, can spell overall business success and partly due to a perception linking individual performance to career growth. Those groups which have a natural performance culture rather than a rewards driven performance culture tends to have more harmonious group dynamics.
Visionary execution is what sets out a leader from others. Execution is a complex value chain starting with goals and ending with fulfilled delivery. Most leaders see a high performance culture in their organizations as an enabler for effective execution. That may be a necessary condition but not a sufficient one. Some others see their own personal productivity as a key driver of effective execution. Again, it may be an inspiring factor but not a sufficient one. Most boards believe that linking rewards to individual, group and company performance would motivate people appreciate the value of performance. This helps but not without some rancour of comparisons. Effective execution, like quality and safety, is a behavioural state.
A leader’s ability to mentor his organization on the various stages of execution is an important condition for setting in place a natural and inclusive performance culture for the company as a whole. From establishing critical, top priority goals in focus to guiding the team on a journey that extrapolates from actions, outcomes to results, accomplishments and finally fulfilments is the essence of effective execution. Even institutions derive actualization through effective execution. See the author’s blog post “Institutional Actualization: The 5A Process of Virtuosity”, Strategy Musings, May 19, 2013 (http://cbrao2008.blogspot.in/2013/05/institutional-actualization-5-process.html). There is a clear need for more contributions on effective execution practices in management and leadership literature.
Posted by Dr CB Rao on May 04, 2016