Jocelyn Davis is executive vice president of research and development at Forum. She is responsible for the company’s strategy to create and leverage intellectual property, including original research, learning ware, consulting and coaching tools, assessment and all other core content. Davis is an author of Forum’s recent book “Strategic Speed: Mobilize People, Accelerate Execution.” She also provides design advice on client projects, working with clients such as Eli Lilly and Co., Bausch & Lomb, Coca-Cola, Agilent, Microsoft, Bank One, Walt Disney and Nike.
Here we are again: end of the year. If you’re like me, you’re looking back on everything your business unit or team accomplished in 2011 and feeling a touch of pride — but also a touch of frustration. As usual, there’s a bunch of stuff that either didn’t happen, happened too slowly or didn’t achieve the desired result. Why is it so hard to execute fast and execute well?
In the research we did for our book “Strategic Speed: Mobilize People, Accelerate Execution,” my co-authors and I uncovered the top three “speed traps” that trip up strategy execution.
- The Brilliant Strategy Trap. This occurs when leaders put most of their efforts into researching and devising an ambitious strategy that will — they hope — vault them ahead of the competition. They pay a lot of attention to writing it up. They pay little attention to building the understanding, buy-in and skills that would ensure its execution.
- The Efficient Process and Structure Trap. Leaders make this mistake when they give most of their attention to process re-engineering and organization design, thinking, “If we can just get everything lined up in the right order and all sources of waste eliminated, things will run smoothly.” Sadly, perfect process maps and organizational charts don’t do much to accelerate the actual work.
- The Sophisticated Technology Trap. Some leaders think technology is the strongest, quickest, most lasting lever for changing how a business operates. What they don’t see is that technology is actually a weak, cumbersome and transitory lever unless it’s designed and installed with the explicit intention of helping people be more effective.
Our research shows that leaders who execute rapidly and effectively do not spend most of their time devising brilliant strategies, improving organizational processes or installing technology. Rather, they tend to pay most attention to people factors — and three in particular.
- Clarity: Creating a shared, clear understanding of the situation and direction.
- Unity: Achieving wholehearted agreement on the merits of that direction and the need to work together to move ahead.
- Agility: Inspiring a willingness to turn and adapt quickly while keeping strategic goals in mind.
When leaders mobilize their organizations and teams around these three elements, they realize large gains in speed and performance, including financial gains — 52% higher growth in operating profit, to cite one nugget from the research.
So how do you take the first step? Many organizations have engaged our firm, Forum, to run a two-hour Speed Workshop with their executive team. A couple of weeks before the workshop, we send out a 34-item survey that asks executives and their first few levels of direct reports to assess two things: 1) the level of clarity, unity and agility in the organization, and 2) the extent to which executives demonstrate specific leadership practices that drive speed.
In the workshop, we present results of the survey, examine differences in perspective between the executive team and its direct reports, highlight areas that need improvement and work with the team to determine actions they can take to create immediate acceleration.
I recently ran one of these Speed Workshops with the senior leadership of a large hospitality and entertainment company. Its organizational speed survey revealed fairly low clarity, fairly high unity and a moderate level of agility — a pattern we fondly call Myopia Utopia.
I began the session by stating that organizations with the Myopia Utopia profile usually exhibit high standards, lots of camaraderie and a hardworking, can-do spirit that leads to good short-term results; but they typically lack clarity on where they’re headed long term and don’t have much of an appetite for debate and dissent, especially at senior levels.
I then asked the group whether that description sounded on target. There were guffaws around the room. “You nailed us,” one person said. Although they all recognized themselves in the profile, what they hadn’t seen was how that particular pattern of behavior had been bogging down their execution.
We continued on through the data, looking at areas of strength and opportunity and digging into a few places in which executives’ perceptions diverged dramatically from their direct reports’. One insight achieved was that, as a leadership team, they’d been relying too much on the standard “communication cascade” as a way to execute strategy; they’d been assuming that once they had reached a hard-won consensus on an issue or initiative, all they had to do was to communicate clear directions to the level below, ask those managers to communicate to their subordinates and so on. They would then dust off their hands and move on to the next initiative — leaving confusion and many dropped balls in their wake.
One executive summed it up well: “Clarity without follow-up isn’t really clarity.”
We ended the session working with the Speed Matrix, a tool that takes data from the survey and recommends specific actions based on a team’s execution weaknesses. Each leader identified one thing he or she could personally do differently, and the group identified a few themes that it would continue to work on together.
With planning meetings happening now or around the corner, it’s a good time to give yourself — or your favorite leadership team — an execution tune-up. A Speed Workshop can help you steer clear of the same old traps and set you up to accelerate execution in 2012 by boosting clarity, unity and agility.