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Execution Excellence – the sinister 70%!

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“To me, ideas are worth nothing unless executed. They are just a multiplier. Execution is worth millions.” Steve Jobs

It is more than a little disturbing that statistics show, on average:

  • 70% of companies fail to execute their strategies
  • 70% of projects fail to achieve their intended outcomes
  • 70% of digitalisation projects are failing
  • 70% of startups and scale-ups fail.

But what really is shocking – we all seem to just accept that?  It’s almost like we’re accepting that this failure is “best practice”?

“Are we “accepting” that failure is just “best practice” today?”

Why is this?  And – do we WANT to do anything about it?

HBR quotes a survey where more than 400 global CEO’s from Asia, Europe and the United States found that executional excellence was the number one challenge facing corporate leaders.

You may have the greatest strategy, the greatest transformation plans, the greatest project plans – and people, in the world, but if those plans are not well executed, you’re going nowhere.

I think we can, or should, all agree – it’s not in the planning that we fail, it’s in the execution!

“Insanity – doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result” Albert Einstein

So, how do we change that?

Volumes have been written, by many experts, about how to create a great strategy, a great plan.  But, very little is written about how to create a great Execution Strategy!

In my experience, execution excellence can be achieved through 10 key disciplines:

1.        Setting a clear vision

Setting a clear vision requires leaders to do their “think” work.  If you don’t know where you want your business to go, how can you expect your team to have any chance of helping you get there?  In the absence of a clearly articulated vision from leadership, teams will either:

  • Do their best or what they know – in whatever way they think is helpful, which may not always be what is necessary
  • Run their own agenda – which may be at odds with your agenda.

Leaders need to:

  • Spend time agreeing a clear vision for the future
  • Communicating frequently and regularly with your team to ensure everyone is on board with that vision.

2.        Focus on what drives success

Most companies try to do too much.  Trying to do too much means:

  • Performing activities that aren’t aligned with organisational goals
  • Performing activities that don’t, directly or indirectly, lead to goal achievement
  • Wasting resources on those activities

To achieve Execution Excellence, leaders need to focus activities on the 3 to 5 things that:

  • Have the greatest impact on the organisation achieving its goals
  • Allow teams to rally behind a small set of carefully chosen priorities
  • They are able to “control”.

Execution Excellence is the discipline of getting the most important things done.

3.        Team Alignment

Execution is a team sport.  Excellence requires alignment across the organisation as well as with organisation goals.  Without alignment teams head off in different directions resulting in:

  • No internal cohesion
  • Little commitment and collective accountability
  • Wasted time, energy and poor results.

The key to successful team alignment is:

  • The direction is set by a clearly articulated vision, purpose and goals
  • A focus on the 3 – 5 things that have the greatest impact on achieving organisational goals
  • Consistency across the organisation
  • Frequent, regular check-ins to ensure that progress towards goals is achieved
  • An open, transparent system for tracking and reporting progress towards goal achievement.

4.        Regular reviews and check-ins

Without regular reviews and check-ins:

  • Teams can go off-track and lose the alignment to organisation goals
  • There is no clear, consistent reporting of progress towards goal achievement
  • The end result is that goals are not achieved.

Reviews should take place on a monthly and quarterly bases.  These should not be long, drawn-out affairs, but short and to the point:

  • What is working and what is not
  • Are we on track to achieve the goals
  • If not, what needs to be done about it
  • What have we learnt and what insights have been gained that can help teams prioritise better in the future

Check-ins are weekly one-on-one meetings between managers and direct reports that focus on progress made on the activities that lead to goal achievement.  These weekly check-ins ensure that:

  • Progress towards goal achievement is maintained
  • Communication is consistent and shared
  • A “safe place” is provided to address issues that may affect goal achievement

Here are 4 useful tips for making the reviews and check-ins meetings more effective:

  • Hold them regularly – weekly, monthly, quarterly – don’t miss even one – to ensure regular communication and status updates
  • Follow a standard agenda
  • Start and finish on time
  • Focus on identifying and solving issues.

By meeting on these regular bases, it ensures that business moves forward.  Be sure to communicate across the organisation, so the rest of the teams are clear on the agenda for that week’s effort.

5.        Measure what matters

Peter Drucker said “what gets measured, gets managed”.

There are 3 levels of “measures”, 2 of which are used by most organisations:

  • Inputs – activities that lead to services or products delivered, used in job descriptions and for performance management
  • Outputs – the services or products or other tangible items delivered by a specific activity or initiative – used for productivity and performance management
  • Outcomes – results from the combination of inputs and outputs that contribute to the impact intended by organisation goals – not measured or used by most organisations.

Most organisations track inputs – project and job tasks, for instance, and Outputs – KPIs and targets for instance.  But few organisations track the result that these Inputs and Outputs have on achieving goals and organisation success.  Yet these Outcomes are the most manageable when it comes to organisation success.  They are the measures and milestones that indicate how you know you will accomplish the goal.

Outcome measures are valuable management tools that can help improve products and services, organisational effectiveness and efficiency, and achieve organisational goals.

Creating these metrics takes more think work from the leaders of the business.

  • What is it that makes you successful?
  • What activities determine success within a 3 – 6 month timeframe?
  • What are some of the metrics you could be measuring on a weekly basis to ensure you keep your finger on the pulse of your business?

The criteria to assess whether or not your metrics will measure progress towards your goal are:

  • They must be able to be measured objectively
  • They must be measured
  • They must measure the outcome or result, not tasks or outputs
  • They must measure progress towards a goal.

“If you complete all tasks and nothing ever gets better, that’s not success”

6.        Assemble and develop the right team

Having the right people on board and in the right roles improves execution excellence.  Every leader wants to have the right people on their teams because the “wrong” people can cost the organisation in terms of:

  • Erosion of culture and morale
  • Lack of productivity
  • Reduced chances of business growth and success
  • Cost of turnover.

Once the people are on board, leaders need to ensure that a “high performance” environment exists and is maintained.  According to research done by Google on high-performing teams, these are the key criteria:

  • Psychological safety – Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or being admonished?
  • Dependability – Can we count on each other to do high quality work on time?
  • Structure and clarity – Are goals, roles, and execution plans on our team clear?
  • Meaning of work – Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?
  • Impact of work – Do we fundamentally believe that the work we’re doing matters?

When you get these right, you will create an environment of high-performance in your organisation.

7.        Create a culture of accountability

Accountability means showing up and setting out to accomplish the things you’d said you’d do, and owning a mistake and sharing it as a learning experience.  It’s about taking personal responsibility for your work.  It’s also trusting in your teammates, and knowing you can count on each other to get things done.

If you’re finding that:

  • Teams are routinely plagued with missed deadlines, broken promises, or vague expectations
  • Managers have to constantly hound folks for updates or feel the need to micromanage.

If those symptoms sound familiar, your team may have an accountability gap.

Creating a culture of accountability is an essential tool used by high-performing organisations to develop better work relationships, eliminate surprises, improve overall job happiness, and achieve organisational goals.

When commitments are made visible to teammates and the organisation (through goal-setting, daily check-ins and reviews), everyone is empowered to ask follow-up questions, check on progress, and help move work forward.

A culture of accountability results in:

  • Better work relationships
  • Improved job satisfaction
  • Teams working more effectively together
  • Team members being empowered with ownership over their work
  • More effective teamwork
  • Better performance discussions
  • Improved employee engagement
  • Team members holding each other accountable in a more supportive way.

And, most importantly it inspires individuals to exceed their goals and improve their performance, and it’s intrinsically linked to results (and revenue).

Accountability isn’t just something to think about during quarterly reviews or when something goes wrong.  High-performing teams practice accountability every single day though:

  • Open communication
  • Sharing commitments
  • Reporting on their progress

One super simple way to do this is through daily or weekly check-ins, where teammates share updates on what they’re working on, what they need from the rest of the team, and how they’re doing.

8. Business Execution Capability and Strategy

All important business endeavours require some type of capability and process.  Organisations that don’t have a process for execution are unlikely to experience Execution Excellence.

“Strategy execution is the responsibility that makes or breaks executives.” Alan Branche

It’s often said that business is 10% strategy and 90% execution and I certainly believe this to be true.  As part of your business education it’s important to read widely, listen to business experts (inside and outside of the profession) and to keep absorbing new information.  However, all that reading, listening and absorbing needs to be synthesised into actual ideas that can be executed.

What are these Execution Capabilities?

  • Decision making – it’s better to make a mistake and discover it’s wrong, than to forever procrastinate and theorise without taking action.  Business is a small series of experiments, many of which end in failure; that’s just how it is.
  • Weekly meetings that resolve issues – if you want to execute new ideas successfully, leadership and teams need to meet weekly and actually resolve issues that arise in the business.  It’s the discipline and structure of the weekly meeting that allows you to resolve issues.  We can borrow from the agile community with their Standups (daily check-ins) and Retrospectives (weekly and monthly checkins) to achieve this.
  • Strict quarterly objectives – A capability for execution is to be setting quarterly goals that move the business forward.  Ideally you want between three and five of these goals that focus on what matters in terms of driving the business goals (and remember, less is more).  Once these goals are set, it’s essential that they become your absolute top priority for the next 90 days and form the focus for weekly and monthly checkins.
  • Have a long-term view – Another key to better execution is having a long-term view.  It’s all too easy to become target focused; trying to hit the weekly, monthly and quarterly financial targets you’ve set for yourself and the business.  Constant short-term decision making leads to short-term results, but doesn’t create a foundation for future improvement.
  • Get outside accountability – The final step in improving your execution is to get some outside accountability.  This could take the form of a non-exec board member, or a coach.  They will attend regular strategy meetings to hold leadership accountable for delivering on strategy.

Execution Strategy

There are many reasons given for execution failure, but we believe one of the top reasons is the lack of a formal strategy for execution.

Do you have a formal strategy for execution?  Execution is the phase in which the plan designed in a prior phase is put into action.  Execution strategy is translating the organisation’s strategic initiatives into action.

No matter how amazingly brilliant a strategy looks on paper, it can only shine when put into action in everyday activities.  Research indicates that over 80% of strategies fail.  And they fail not because they’re incorrect, they fail because they’re not effectively executed.

“Ideas don’t make you rich. The correct execution of ideas does.” Felix Dennis

Here are the steps from strategy to execution:

  • Step 1: Align execution to strategy
  • Step 2: Share priorities widely
  • Step 3: Measure outcomes, not activities
  • Step 4: Make progress (or a lack thereof) visible
  • Step 5: Course correct quickly
  • Step 6: Embrace a growth mindset
  • Step 7: Develop an organisational culture that supports the strategy

Don’t be afraid to re-strategise. Even if your team is performing well, there can be outside factors that can negatively affect your implementation of the strategy.  Every time you review your progress, decide what, if any, adjustments need to be made.

9.        Ownership of the Execution Plan

Even with a plan in place and having your team aligned, without ownership of the plan you are doomed.  To get ownership across the organisation you need to enable and empower people to have input on the plan.  Make them part of the process, then they will have ownership.  The key is bringing all stakeholders to the planning process to make them the architects of the plan.

“Execution IS the game.” Gary Vaynerchuck

In the Execution Strategy, ensure that ownerships are assigned for all touchpoints, and spread those ownerships as widely as possible.

10.    Leading Execution

“Execution is everything.” John Doerr

One of the final ingredients is having leadership from the front line to keep the people focussed on what is important.  When people tell you that they are very busy the likelihood is that they are.  But are they busy on the things that matter?  Leaders are also very busy, but it is their responsibility to lead the way.  Team leads are the key to Execution Excellence.  When, in the weekly and monthly check-ins and reviews, they see their measures are off track or team members are spending too much time on non-critical areas they need to bring them back so that the focus remains on getting the most important things that drive success done.

The OKR Framework

By now we can agree – the traditional approach to strategy execution is failing modern organisations.

Across every industry, leaders are struggling to:

  • Create strategic plans connected to a mission
  • Align teams with strategy
  • Execute the strategy with certainty
  • Adapt strategy without friction

If any of these challenges sound like what your organisation is going through, this article is for you. It’s time to understand why committing to a proven framework and a platform to drive the framework is the key to mastering strategy execution.

A strategy execution framework helps organisations maintain their focus and align key initiatives to organisation goals to achieve desired results.

The OKR Framework is the most popular, proven framework for strategy and change execution.  It has been around for over 20 years and used by most of the top organisations around the world,  It is estimate that around 25% of organisations in USA and UK use the OKR Framework to execute strategy and change initiatives.

There are 3 elements to the OKR Framework:

  • Cadences (or Cycles) – the frequency of management which is usually, weekly, monthly, and quarterly
  • OKRs – the objectives, measures of success, and initiatives to achieve the objectives
  • CFRs – the conversations, feedback and recognition critical to Execution Excellence.

Together these three elements provide the framework for continuous improvement.  And, together they combine all 10 elements that make up Execution Excellence, as outlined above.

A strategy execution platform coordinates a seamless approach to strategy in your organisation through four components:

  • Plan – Create a strategy that connects your teams and your data in one place.
  • Align and Activate – Connect decision making and create clear definitions of success.
  • Execute – Collaborate with certainty, transparency, and trust to accomplish the mission.
  • Assess and Adapt – Clarify what works, what doesn’t, and make changes quickly.

Through alignment with the different strategy execution components, a platform connects your teams to the clearly-defined, transparent goals of the organisation.  Whether you’re overhauling strategy or refining the one you’ve got, a strategy execution platform enables focus and decision-making autonomy where you need it most.

There are a number of platforms available, and organisations should select the platform that best suits their needs – current and future.


Execution is not a science or an art, it is a discipline.  And, Execution Excellence is not doing what you’ve done before, but hopefully doing something better.  Execution and Change have changed, and “traditional” ways of “managing” these have changed.  If you don’t have all the ingredients for new and modern strategy and change execution in place, you are choosing to be one of the 90% of companies that fail to execute.

Take a step back and ask yourself what are you missing to execute with excellence?  Go back and review each of the 10 key discipliness and see what you can do to positively impact your this year and the future.

Then ask yourself:

  • Is your team clear on how to execute?
  • Do you have a framework and platform to execute your strategies?

If you can’t say yes to both, we can share with you what you need to do so that your organisation and transformation / change initiatives get to be more successful, and the organisation gets to achieve its goals.

“Great firms execute and great leaders know how to get stuff done!”

Want to improve your execution capabilities?

Talk to us.  We will take you through the fundamentals of good business management and effective execution today.  And, as much research summarised in this article suggests, if you can’t execute on your ideas, you’re going nowhere.

“Without strategy, execution is aimless. Without execution, strategy is useless.” Morris Chang

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