How to Overcome the 2 Deadly Sins Preventing Excellence in Execution

You’ve had the strategic planning session. You’ve followed up with announcements, emails, maybe even posters or wall-plaques with your Vision and Mission statements. You’ve tried to get employees on the same page with comprehensive job descriptions, professional development plans, performance reviews, action plans, and incentive programs. And yet there’s still a gap between your well-intended Strategic Plan and your results at the end of the year. What went wrong? Perhaps your people simply aren’t as enthusiastic as you are, despite your best efforts. Take this assessment and find out!

Execution remains the #1 CEO challenge each year. If you’ve ever led a transformative effort in your company, you probably learned the hard way that you needed to:

  1. Get the right executive team on the same page immediately.
  2. Engage employees sooner rather than later to create support for the new goals and plan.
  3. Build a plan for rapid execution.
  4. Generate tangible wins early on to keep momentum going and prevent fizzle.

The problem is most Strategic Plans lack an embedded way to achieve all four goals well. When you replace bulky binders full of tactics with a concise one-page Strategy Pyramid and no more than 7 meaningful, observable outcomes that every single person from boardroom to mailroom can wrap their head around, you’ll finally get the alignment, engagement, and execution that’s been missing.

Deadly Sin #1: Ineffective Communication

We all know how ridiculous it looks when a tourist who doesn’t speak the language tries to make themselves understood by speaking more slowly and loudly. Similarly, leadership teams often speak a different language than the rank and file (‘strategy-speak’ is brutal for this). Simply repeating ourselves in a ‘foreign language’ does not make us understood.

I once taught a group of Shanghai executives a three–day program through an interpreter and had to cut the usual material by more than half to make it work. I could see by their faces and body language that it was as slow and painful for them as it was for me and much, as they say, was ‘lost in the translation’. Whenever I see an organization with a bad case of ‘strategy-speak’, I see the same look on the faces of those upon whom the executive team are relying on to actually get the job done.

Your Solution in Plain Sight: review your Strategy Pyramid with each person as part of their job plan for the year, and have them identify what initiatives they can contribute to, and why the success of that initiative matters to the organization and to them. Once it’s personal and it’s their own words, it’s meaningful. Then, have them set milestones towards achieving their deliverables and hold themselves accountable.

You may have heard me use the term “Octopus Management” in the past – when all the tentacles are squirming furiously in their own direction, the head goes nowhere. However, when each tentacle is aligned and pushing in the same direction, the giant squid is the fastest creature in the ocean. Simply get everyone pushing things in the right direction, and you’ll have execution with impact.

Deadly Sin #2: Complexity

Conventional approaches to Execution simply befuddle and complicate rather than streamlining and simplifying. Over the last 15 years, the amount of procedures, layers, interface structures, coordination efforts, people, and decision approvals have increased somewhere between 50-350 percent and managers currently spend 30-60 percent of their time in coordination-related meetings. Does that sound familiar? You can spend your time rearranging men on the chess board or you can spend your time winning the game.

Have you ever sat through a strategic planning update full of PowerPoint slides and spreadsheets purporting to communicate progress that leaves you numb with detail? Or have you ever had multiple division heads do a dog and pony show for a whole day, yet walked away unclear on the status and next step? Have you ever spent a lot of your valuable time having to review a summary status report on strategic priorities only to find that every item essentially said “in progress?” What an incredibly destructive use of valuable leadership, management, and individual-contributor time to prepare all that bunk only to create confusion!

Your Solution in Plain Sight: Replace unproductive complexity with something simple, such as the green/yellow/red stoplight system for your key initiatives to give everyone a quick visual snapshot on how the organization is performing against its goals, celebrating wins, and then focusing on making sure everything is on track.

Use this simple analogy that we’re all familiar with to get the stoplight system right. When a baby is learning to walk only 3 things are happening:

  1. The baby is going full-tilt forward, usually towards a goal that’s clear in his or her mind – that’s Green on the stoplight. Take a few moments to recognize and appreciate those who are keeping the key initiative on track and moving ahead as planned.
  2. The baby is wobbling, but grabs onto something supportive to regain his or her balance, and then keeps moving towards the goal – that wobbling phase is Yellow, and it means helping hands are needed. Take a moment to help everyone understand the issues or ask for help to outline the get-well plan that has already been developed.
  3. The baby is wobbling and sits down with a thump, not going anywhere. That’s Red, and it’s time to ask for all hands on deck to help get the key initiative back on track, or to reset expectations if there has been a material change to circumstances that will reflect completion.

Just like anyone who sees a wobbling baby or one that’s fallen down, everyone is crystal clear on the status and automatically motivated to help out. Note that at no time is the baby chastised for failure in the red and yellow zones – instead, that’s a signal to provide help and support and keep the process moving in the right direction. The stoplight system takes very little time to create and update, and focuses laser-like attention on what is going well and what is not on target. Execution with ease then becomes a matter of staying the course or taking action to get things back on track with one simple question: “What needs to be done to turn it green?”

Success Story: I first used the Stoplight system as a Group Manager, trying to make my way through a 20×10 grid with 200 KPIs and trying to find a way to help my team understand how to turn all that data into focus and results instead of absolute overwhelm. Well, simply by accident, I started using three different colors of highlighters to help me make sense of the printouts and voila! Clarity emerged out of complexity. That team went from last place in the country to first place in less than nine months, simply because they focused only on those in need of attention. By executing well on an exception basis, they became more productive and engaged.

Although it sounds simple and intuitive, I find that it takes Leadership Teams some support and practice to break old habits and get it right. Amongst their biggest challenges are:

  1. Keeping the status green for too long, for fear of reaching out for help, due to ingrained perceptions of ‘success’ being ‘everything’s fine’ and ‘failure’ being defined as flagging an issue.
  2. Leaving things in the yellow zone for too long. A wobbling baby doesn’t wobble forever when he or she is learning to walk. Hands either reach out to steady the baby or the baby sits down with a plop. Calling the ball is essential here.
  3. Not acting quickly enough to implement a Plan B for red-zone items. Once the organization becomes comfortable with the transparency that’s inherent in this system, it becomes more acceptable to turn things red knowing that it’s in the greatest interest of the company to do so.

Are you intrigued by the idea of transforming ineffective strategic planning into energizing and results-driven strategic thinking? Contact me for a Best Next Move Accelerator Call, where we’ll talk 1-1 about where you’re at, where you want to be, what the gap is and what challenges may stand in your way, and I will advise you on your Best Next Move to reach your goals – no fee, no obligation.

How would improving communication and reducing complexity help you move YOUR strategic agenda forward?

#1 Bestselling Author, International Speaker, and Accelerator Anne C. Graham is on a mission to help 5 million business leaders and their teams double their profit per employee – or more – in less than one year, in less time per week than they’re spending on email per day. Her new book Profit in Plain Sight includes the 5-step proactive P.R.O.F.I+T Plan to do it. Connect with Anne on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook.