'Execution is a people problem, not a strategy problem.'


This was part of an article in the Harvard Business Review that caught my eye recently. Here at Lotus we are vehemently opposed to the advice dispensing approach of most practitioners in the management consulting profession. We pride ourselves on our proven ability to not only work with our clients to formulate solutions but to ensure that those solutions are properly implemented.

The article, written by Peter Bergman, is interesting and is well worth a read. Its proposition is that it’s hard to formulate a good strategy, but it’s much harder to get people to execute on that strategy. The point is made that a poorly executed strategy is worthless no matter how clever it is. Therefore, the biggest challenge isn’t strategic thinking, its strategic acting; merely communicating strategy isn’t enough to drive strategic execution. So, strategy execution is a human behaviour issue, not a strategic challenge i.e. effective execution requires staff to be aligned and focused on those actions that will drive the company’s critical outcomes. Even in well managed firms all too often staff are misaligned, too broadly focused and work at cross-purposes. The article proposes a Human Relations approach where key staff are identified and their contribution to towards goals are mapped. It depends to a large extent on extensive coaching and relationship-building between different teams in different areas.

There is no doubt that this approach would help in execution, but I then started thinking about the reality of human behaviour at work. My observations over many years reveal that staff are happiest when they are going on leave soon, while those close to retirement can often tell you exactly how many days they have left to work! Most staff believe that they have two lives, a work life and a personal life. I believe that this is so very wrong because we only have ONE life, with the amazing ability to make our own choices about what we do with that life. Except for those of us lucky enough to have our work as our passion, most people would appear to actively dislike the jobs they do.

I have heard office workers refer to themselves as ' white collar cubicle slaves!' Given this reality it is no wonder that execution and implementation is so very difficult. Its not surprising when you consider that staff at lower levels in the hierarchy have no input into strategy or business plans which remain firmly in the hands of senior executives. Frontline staff are then told that they have been given a plan (which has been communicated by a 'roadshow’) and that they have all the tools they need to execute the plan (i.e. the many mostly non-relevant training courses they have been sent on) so why aren’t they delivering?? In many cases the senior executives have bought their strategy from advice-dispensing management consultancies and sometimes even buy an operating methodology from them! And then they wonder why execution doesn’t happen......

I believe that execution is indeed a people problem but I approach it from a human behaviour perspective. If you believe that most people see their work as a chore to be endured, then adopting the HR type approach as mentioned above simply won't work.

Let me take you through my experience with a corporate. I was very aware that the culture was one of doing the bare minimum and the environment was hugely politicised. Most staff were negative about the company, with ongoing talk about leaving. The interesting point however was that the most negative staff had been with the company for many years! You can imagine that aligning staff and ensuring a narrow focus on critical outcomes, although good, wouldn’t work as it didn’t address the cause of the problem but rather the symptoms (this happens so often in companies that are out of touch with their staff!)

I decided to find out what really made the staff tick. This involved confidential one on one conversations with them where they could stop it at any time and refuse to answer a question if they felt uncomfortable. The first question was what or who they dreamt of becoming when they were seven or eight years old. The fascinating thing was that not one of scores of staff interviewed had dreamt of being in the industry they were currently in; to put it another way, not one of them had followed their dream! How incredibly sad is that! When I asked why, the excuses just flowed, with the clear majority saying in effect that’s just the way their life had worked out.

My impression from this was that their feeling of acute disappointment with their job, together with their sense of lost never to be repeated opportunity, had led to their dissatisfaction with what they were currently doing. Some of the dreams were very interesting, such as the person who wanted to be a movie star.

I also asked them what the status of their marriage/relationship, finances and health was. Again, I was extraordinarily privileged to be entrusted with these deeply personal situations. I was able to assist some of them with fixing their financial and legal complications, or putting them in touch with people who could help them. This experience was deeply humbling and made me realise once again that unless you are in consulting for the overriding purpose of helping others you will never get anywhere. By the way I could help the aspirant movie star by getting him to join his local amateur dramatic society.

My next question was what their current aspiration would be if the reasons for it could be overcome. This was the fun part and most were enthusiastic about what they would do if they won the lottery. A surprising number merely wanted to travel overseas to visit a city that had taken their fancy.

An analysis of the responses seemed to indicate that the awareness of their lost opportunities had led to some sense of resentment towards their employer. Another issue was that nobody had ever asked them these types of questions which seemed to increase their dissatisfaction with the company.

I realised that I had, almost unwittingly, stumbled upon something that, if a solution could be found, had the potential to dramatically impact both the lives of staff and the performance of the company they worked for. Given the often-heard corporate mantra of “I hired you, I didn’t adopt you" it was going to be difficult!

The solution came after lots of soul searching and trying to balance the seemingly conflicting goals of the company and its staff. I went back to each person I had discussion with and explained that if they could align their personal aspiration with the goals of the company, then both they and the company would benefit. If they wanted to visit New York, then use this as inspiration to change their attitude to the company and up their performance. The result of this would be that overall company performance would increase and their bonus would increase, thus making the achievement of their aspiration achievable over a period of time.

The big change was that the staff were now in a certain sense working towards achieving their goals primarily and not the company goals; attitudes changed overnight!

This was tempered by the realisation that they needed the company to achieve its goals first.

The change in the performance was remarkable; from being perennially substandard they achieved levels which had been thought impossible. The biggest change was explained to me by a staffer who told me that for the first time in her job she felt that she was working for herself. She also said that she had started to question plans and instructions with the objective of improving company whereas previously she had said nothing and complained bitterly to her workmates.

Try it in your company, you could be astounded by the results! It is obviously easier to use external experts to facilitate, so give us a call if you are worried about the culture in your company environment.

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