I consider myself to be a strategist. I love the process of determining a goal/vision, diagnosing the current situation, understanding the gaps and working out a plan or an approach to bringing the goal to reality. The best part of my job is working with teams through this process, supporting their problem solving and facilitating a joint understanding of the challenge they face and the likely solutions available to them. It’s important work as success is normally built off the back of an effective strategy. The reality is though, strategy alone creates no value. It may look good on paper, it may be brilliantly logical, evidence based and inspiring, however unless you actually execute the strategy nothing will change and it is all a waste of time.
We can all think of examples where a brilliantly articulated strategy ended up achieving nothing. I know I can. Whether it was that new lifestyle that would improve my personal fitness and health of that brilliant contracting strategy that would change our partner’s behaviour. The strategies really were brilliant but they failed to deliver change. Perhaps Mike Tyson summarised this best (or at least most brutally) when he said “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
My “failures” over time caused me to stop and think about effective strategy and about how to turn great strategy into great results. I had pondered this issue for years but it all came together when I read this quote from Jack Walsh.
“In real life, strategy is actually very straightforward. You pick a general direction and implement like hell.”
This quote made an immediate impact on me. Clearly I read it at the right time for me, or as the old saying goes “when the student is ready the teacher will appear.” Success is not so much about having an amazing strategy as it is about working hard to implement that strategy in the real world, including your ability to survive being punched in the mouth as Tyson so elegantly puts it.
Since reading this I have found many similar quotes and read many articles that have had the same or a very similar message, but I still love Jack’s quote best. Pick a general direction and implement like hell! It speaks to me and I try and keep it front of mind as a reminder for me on what’s really important when it comes to value creation. To be an effective leader you need to define strategies and approaches that will support your team to successfully deliver your defined vision (do you like what I did there? I turned an execution challenge, which is not my natural strength, into a strategy challenge which I love and think I’m good at).
I have looked at and considered lots of different approaches and ideas to leading execution and I have concluded (at least for now) that successful execution comes down to the following key things:
- Progress and stability. Success comes when you achieve both progress and stability. Stability without progress leads to stagnation and irrelevance. Progress, or apparent progress, without stability is unsustainable and usually results in collapse and failure. Too often teams lurch from one to the other and never really achieve either. Instead they cement their reputation as being a team that doesn’t deliver and can’t deliver.
- Progress requires focus. Most teams have more work to do than they can possibly do right now. Having more to do than you have time to do it in is the normal state rather than reflecting a lack of understanding and priority from management (organisations loathe idleness so there will always be more work than resources). In light of this, rather than complain about a lack of resource we need to choose what is most important for us right now and focus on getting that thing done. When it’s done, or when things change, pick the next most important thing and do that.
- Commit to the goal but be flexible on how. Successful execution is all about producing the desired outcome. You and the team need to be sure of and commit to the agreed outcome, however you need to be flexible in your approach to achieving that outcome. If your first strategy /plan doesn’t succeed change your strategy but stay committed to the goal.
- Learn and Reset. No matter how good your plans are or how focused your actions are it is unlikely that everything you do will work (if it does you probably haven’t been ambitious enough). This is to be expected and rather than going on a witch hunt for who’s fault it was use it as an opportunity for learning. Even when things do go spectacularly well, take the opportunity to review and learn so you improve your chances of replicating success in the future. In the long term your ability to be successful is more related to your ability to learn and adjust your actions as a result of this learning than it is that any initiative you do right now works or doesn’t work.
If you do these things consistently and well you and your team will become expert executors and as a result you will likely add significant value to your organisations.