Saturday, May 20, 2017

Reflections on Leading Execution

Recently, I was asked to share some brief reflections with a group of middle level managers on leading execution. Please, find below my reflections.

1.      Strategy is mere statement of intent unless it gets done. Organizations need to get better in translating their strategy intent and conceptual thoughts, usually in various PowerPoint documents to action and results. Leading execution can therefore be reframed as “From PowerPoint to Action” or  “From PowerPoint to Results”.

2.      The nexus of increasing size of organizations or the need for rapid scaling, diversity geographies and business scope, competitive and fast pace markets, disruptive technologies, active regulations and sophisticated and very aware customers, and convergence of markets and industries create particular execution challenge for organizations in what may look like increasing complexities and interdependencies.  Yet simplifying these complexities and interdependencies is at the heart of good execution. Managers must not further complexify internal and external processes but must rather find ways to simplify them to execute, to achieve operational excellence.

3.      Two key parameters for measuring good execution (assuming that strategy is right), are fast speed to market and great customer experience. The faster our speed to market and the better our customer experience, the better our execution or vice-versa.

4.      Below are some of the things managers must do to execute brilliantly.

a.      Outside-In Thinking: Product, service and programs must be designed from the viewpoint of what the customer wants and internal processes aligned to deliver the product or service, the way the customer wants it. In many instances, organizations design their product and services to fit their internal processes and not the need of the customer leading to poor customer experience and poor execution. 

b.      Define clear end goals and design program and processes backwards: Usually a key reason for poor execution is fuzzy or lack of clarity about end goals which leads to poor process design that sub-optimizes program delivery. While in some experimentation instances, it may be difficult to define sharply our end goals, nevertheless it would still be imperative to define at least broad qualitative outcomes that such program must deliver and processes designed backwards from such defined outcomes.

c.       Define and understand clearly program dependencies internally and externally. Seek and get alignment of these dependencies before your begin execution of the program.

d.      Understand your resource constrains and align priorities: Rarely will managers have infinite resources to do all that they conceive. Clear priorities and trade off must be set within the context of resource constrain; and necessary alignment sought with stakeholders and dependencies to execute flawlessly. An average manager or organizational unit is likely to be unable to execute more than three to four high level priorities at the same time. Long list of priorities mean no real priority in which priorities pull resources from each other usually in different directions leading to sub-optimal outcomes.

e.      Define measureable goals, milestones, timelines and accountabilities: Well defined milestones that indicate the program is on track are critical to execution. Lack of well- defined and measurable milestones create irreversible resource investment in which significant resource is sunk before the organization realizes that program is not on track or program will not deliver the desired outcome. The organization would be stuck on a wrong journey with sub-optimal outcomes steering in the face of managers, yet they would find it difficult to re-track the program due to irreversibly sunk quantum of investments.

f.        Know the numbers that matter, the leading and lagging indicators that show your program is on track or otherwise. Every program should have leading indicators or proxies that send early warnings or comfort that desired periodic outcome of programs or market actions would be delivered or otherwise. In consumer goods industry for example, the trajectory of periodic tracking of brand preference is usually a lead indicator of medium term sales. Even if sales are strong today, it will eventually align with the trajectory of brand preference if it is in decline. Do you know the leading or lagging indicators of your program’s eventual outcomes? Do you measure them and take proactive measures to correct their trajectories if they are in the negative?

g.      Leverage technology maximally to simplify complexities, eliminate or shorten manual processes and deliver great customer experience.

h.      Learn project management skills: Every manager today giving the increasing interdependency of their work and resource constrains, must have project management competency. The days are gone when project management skills of the firm would reside in few managers in the project office. As a manager, you are managing one form of project or the other with defined by end goal, cost or finite resource and defined deliverable time. Optimizing effectively these variable makes project management a sine-qua non for all managers.

i.        Engagement, leadership and good inter-personal skills are critical to good execution. Managers will never work alone. They work in interdependency with other managers. Leading execution implies that engagement, leadership and interpersonal skills to motivate the right alignment with other managers, to engage them, to align their incentives with program and service outcomes become critical. Leadership is not necessarily about hierarchy but about program role. If you are product, service or program manager, you must lead, engage, manage and motivate your dependencies to deliver what is required of them to deliver on overall program outcomes.

j.        Lastly, good execution provides a great feedback loop for firms to validate and fine-tune their strategy in a dynamic world. If there is good execution and the desired results are not forthcoming, it is clear that strategy needs to be changed, fine-tuned or assumptions revalidated. If there is no good execution, the firm will never know if strategy is right or otherwise and may be stuck for too long on a wrong path.

Wishing you the best as you lead execution.

Olu Akanmu

May 2017