Strategy is only an idea, a hypothesis, until it is actualized. The greatest challenge of CEOs and top management teams is helping their organizations execute better.
Four primary factors determine execution excellence. The more we engage with companies on their own execution journeys, the more our work has zeroed in on these four factors. Where companies have problems, these are the most troublesome areas. And when they achieve performance breakthroughs, these are the areas that drive improvement. We refer to them as the 4 A’s: Alignment, Ability, Architecture and Agility.
The 4A framework can help you see your business through the lens of execution requirements and how it can serve as a platform for engaging others in important discussions to prioritize action and intervention. This framework is especially important as companies grow and evolve. The practices may change, but the principles remain the same.
Alignment conveys the deceptively simple notion that execution depends on everyone working together toward the same goal. In our meetings with CEOs and leadership teams, they consistently and emphatically stress that alignment is both the most important factor in execution, and the first that needs to be addressed in order to improve performance. It is the sine qua non of execution; without it, they say, nothing else much matters.
It provides clarity of purpose and direction, momentum to overcome inertia, a focus for decisions and actions, and resilience in the face of change or disruption.
However, in large and complex organizations, where managers and employees often work in silos, their attention becomes compartmentalized, or rather, “departmentalized.” As you might expect, they often lose perspective on how their efforts work in service of the whole. When we ask them about their company’s strategy, the often give us only generalities or platitudes. When we push a little more to be concrete, they default to “This is what I do, this is my job.” There’s often a substantial gap between their understanding of the requirements of strategy and their own work. Misalignment becomes the norm, not the exception.
It is therefore a constant challenge to emphasize the mission-critical elements that unite the organization toward its strategic purpose, and work across the enterprise to achieve those outcomes. An important part of alignment is clarifying with others how work for which they are accountable leads to those strategic outcomes, how overall success is attributable to them.
In any endeavor, whether it’s business, sports or the arts, great execution requires great skill. No matter how fine the composer or how beautiful the score, the performance depends on the mastery of artists working together to bring life to the music.
Interestingly, what begins with a discussion of alignment, and the goal of everyone pulling together, often evolves to a deeper discussion of leadership ability and talent. When it comes to strategy execution, the challenge is to get the most out of human assets. This isn’t just a focus on productivity, but also attracting, developing and deploying the best human capital; raising skill levels; and making sure that the types of knowledge, skills and abilities are appropriate for the task.
We also see collaborative capability as an important “talent multiplier” leveraging the knowledge and skills of each person to help others perform more effectively. In this regard, collaborative capability is essential for execution. Improving collaborative capability is not an easy undertaking, but can be crucial for achieving execution excellence. We look at this on three levels. First, there are structural elements that either bring people together or make collaboration more difficult. These need to be identified and addressed. Second, there are cognitive elements that either create mutual understanding and knowledge sharing or impose an intellectual divide. These need to be attended to as well. And third, there are dispositional or affective elements that either engender trust and reciprocity or provoke the tendency toward office politics and division. These need to be surfaced and addressed.
The design and configuration of your organization, as well as its underlying infrastructure, processes, technologies and controls constitutes the domain of organization architecture. Your organization’s design makes a big difference in terms of reliability, scalability and continuity of performance. In terms of strategy execution, the organizational architecture is critical for managing resource flows, information availability, decision-making and processes that propel the organization forward. Getting the design right, and ensuring good alignment and ability, can transform organizations and lead to breakthrough performance.
Unfortunately, we have found that organization architecture often does just the opposite. The very structures, processes and systems that are supposed to enable work often are the most entangling impediments to effective execution. Poor architecture slows down decision-making in a morass of reporting relationships, regulations, approvals and other bureaucratic tendrils. It confuses and impedes progress through inefficient resource flows, process inefficiencies and finger pointing. And it obfuscates rather than elucidates decision-making with incomplete or distorted information.
Focus on ways to streamline your organization’s architecture, simplifying structures, improving processes, as well as clarifying roles, responsibilities, decision rights and authority. This includes building lateral connections across the enterprise to improve collaboration and joint decision-making. And importantly, there is a social architecture that coevolves with the formal architecture. Informal relationships, interaction patterns and cultural norms can support or subvert the goals of execution.
In high-velocity environments, questions about growth, profitability, innovation and execution may remain the same. But the answers about how to achieve them are changing rapidly. In such a dynamic environment, the ability to respond and adapt is critical for achieving organizational goals.
Ironically, one of the most common inhibitors of agility is our own approach to execution, a phenomenon we call the “Execution Paradox.” In an attempt to drive better performance and maximize efficiency, many organizations create a situation in which change and adjustment are more difficult. The harder they work, it seems, the more challenging it is for them to see the need for change, to flex, adapt and adjust appropriately.
Part of the challenge is creating the capacity to see what’s coming or what’s possible. Some of the most agile organizations have developed situational awareness that gives them deep insights to customer needs and broader peripheral vision of what’s happening in the marketplace and external environment. You can build situational awareness in your organization by empowering others to help surface potential opportunities and leverage the collective wisdom of those around you.
One last point: Of all the elements in the 4A framework, agility is the newest and least well understood. Organizations that for years tried to create stability and eliminate variation as a precondition for execution excellence are having to rethink their approach. The change has not come naturally.
To help assess your company’s execution capability, take the online Strategy Execution Survey, based on the 4A framework.
The preceding is excerpted from Scott Snell and Ken Carrig’s forthcoming book, Strategic Execution: Driving Breakthrough Performance in Business, published by Stanford Business Books, an imprint of Stanford University Press. Nominated for the Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award, it’s available for purchase on sup.org (20 percent off with discount code SNELL20), Amazon.com or your favorite independent bookstore.