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Building a Culture of Execution

Bust through these six barriers that stand between your organization’s strategy and your customer’s experience

The essentials

“In many organizations, there is a gap between strategy and action,” says Barry Cross. “That is, execution of strategy misfires and promised results are illusory.” In this conversation with QSB Insight, Cross, adjunct assistant professor at Queen’s School of Business, identifies a number of barriers to execution and suggests a change realization model that includes alignment to goals, appreciation of roles, and assurance of completion. Cross is a faculty member of the new Queen’s Execution Program.

Execution Masters Ask: Who Is Your Customer and What Does She Want?

At its simplest, execution is about bringing strategy to life. Whether you’re in manufacturing or service industry, health care, finance, or not-for-profit, it’s part of your core responsibility.

To execute consistently well, begin by asking two questions: Who is your customer? And what do they want? The first key in driving execution is to be specific in answering these questions.

What happens when you get these questions wrong? Look no further than Target’s experience in Canada. Who were Target’s customers? We can define those customers in a number of ways, but essentially they were people who wanted something different than Wal-Mart. Many of these Canadian customers were already familiar with what Target was offering, through their experience with Target in the U.S. As a result, they thought they knew what to expect when they walked into a Target store. What customers experienced, however, was wildly different: Stock-outs and a lack of inventory. Significant price differences to U.S. stores. Disappointing décor and layouts. Many of the Target stores were really just a re-badged Zellers. Customers who wanted that type of environment could shop at Wal-Mart, though I should add that Wal-Mart does a very good job within their target market. Target had a chance to deliver a different retail experience in Canada and failed. Now, two years later, Target has left the Canadian marketplace, their poor execution leading to a loss for the company, investors, and employees of over $5 billion.

Barriers to Execution

Look within your own organization. You likely have a strategy and a plan of action, but is there a gap between the two? Can you deliver the plan? For economic or other factors, your organization may not be driving the plan or achieving the results you’re looking for. 

Consider these barriers to execution and see if any apply to your organization:

  • Inappropriate strategy – is it achievable in our industry?
  • Unclear strategy – have we communicated that strategy to those that are responsible for delivering the plan?
  • Lack of focus on, or alignment to, strategy – are key resources positioned to support the plan?
  • Lack of resources – do we have the resources we need?
  • No urgency – now is the time...
  • Absence of execution culture – are we making excuses?

How to Set Priorities and Convey Urgency 

Establishing priorities is a key element in achieving anything in an organization. Most of us get up in the morning and know the important use of our time for that day. We know our priorities. The question is: Does your team have the same understanding? People can’t do what they don’t understand, so are we conveying the urgency and sense of priority for the elements of our strategic plan to the people around the organization that can make it happen? 

One of the tools to do that is the A3 Change Realization Model. In brief, the model is made up of these elements:

Alignment to goals. This involves a clarity of vision, agreement of goals, the communication strategy for roll-out of the plan, incentives, and score card elements.

The Appreciation of roles involves making sure everyone understands roles and responsibilities, and could be published in an X-matrix or Operating Plan. The language here is less important than how you get commitment and buy-in to the plan.

Assurance of completion involves reinforcing accountability, with a follow-up plan, risk management, and alignment of resources to the plan itself.

It’s this type of approach and language that creates the hands-on execution environment and culture that we’re all looking for in our organizations. These dimensions are like three legs to a stool: miss any one and the stool is unstable.

Do it right and you will be rewarded with a culture in which employees find a way to get things done rather than make excuses; in which people deal with issues on the spot rather than wait for the next meeting that may never happen.

If you do nothing else, make sure your team is aligned and people understand not only the front end but their role in it. Understand the barriers you face as an organization and find a way to get around them. And finally, identify who your best customers are and what they really want.

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Good employees are not enough. We have to design the failures out of our systems

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Too many people view management controls as nothing more than initiative-sapping red tape, and for good reason. It’s time for leaders to treat controls as seriously as they do budgeting or strategizing

Smith School of Business
Goodes Hall, Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario
Canada K7L 3N6

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