By Paul Kerr, December 2010
Paul Kerr has been involved in business for more than 28 years, including more than 20 years in consulting and training. He is a principal at leadership training and consulting firm Skills for Excellence.
One of most frustrating challenges facing business leaders today is closing what is commonly known as the execution gap (or sometimes the strategy gap). The execution gap is a perceived gap between a company’s strategies and expectations and its ability to meet those goals and put ideas into action.
Due to the complexity of people, businesses, and the societal constructs in which we operate, it is more difficult than it might seem at first glance to close this gap. A survey in 2007 found that 49% of business leaders perceived a gap between strategy and execution; 64% lacked confidence in their company’s ability to narrow it.
However, there are some simple rules for closing the execution gap.
1. Clearly Define the Desired End Result
A big problem with going from idea to implementation is simply a lack of clearly defined vision and goals. Leaders who cannot define what they want accomplished can hardly expect others to understand their strategy and participate in their projects with any level of meaningful contribution. Fuzzy definitions will produce fuzzy results, if any at all. The more specifically you can define your expectations, the better it will allow employees to wrap their minds around what they’re supposed to be working toward. Without this clarity, they will often end up stumbling around in the metaphorical dark, trying to divine what the leaders really want instead of accomplishing it.
2. Concisely Articulate the “Why”
Since leaders need the effort of others, they must be able to effectively communicate to them what they want done and, more importantly, why they want to do it. Clear and concise communication is vitally important because employees are more likely to disappoint if they don’t understand what you expect.
Furthermore, explaining the why behind strategic decisions gives employees a deeper understanding of how their knowledge and work will be a contribution to the larger whole. Without this understanding it is easy for them to feel isolated instead of feeling like actively engaged participants in a meaningful enterprise.
3. Acknowledge Ignorance and Acquire Necessary Knowledge
To make sure strategies get put into motion, you must make sure you have the knowledge and skills to manage the project.
With adequate self-awareness, leaders can honestly assess if they have the necessary working knowledge for their roles. There are educational resources to make up for any shortcomings (with the added caveat that ultimately leaders cannot know everything and to pretend otherwise is egotistical folly; hire good people if you are not the best fit to manage).
4. Assemble a Quality Leadership Team
Some might argue that this should be the first item, and I would not dismiss this position out of hand. There are overlapping activities that somewhat simultaneously occur. However for an executive team to be in a room collaboratively developing a strategy requires that someone initiate it and determine who to invite in the first place. And typically this process begins with an idea from the initiator as its starting point regardless of how it might develop from there.
You should aim to build a highly qualified team that can honestly pick apart your strategies from all angles. Allow your team to poke holes in your ideas as you debate and deliberate together. Finding weak spots prior to implementation will help close the execution gap.
5. Closely Monitor Progress
Implementing any strategy involves meetings to discuss the various projects and programs that will be required. But all too often, meetings end with task assignments that are not accomplished on the agreed time line. This is anathema to closing the execution gap, and the executive leadership team should ensure project leaders are acutely aware that this practice is not acceptable. Those under their purview should be expected to perform and be held accountable for the results.
On the other hand, nobody likes to be micromanaged and thus monitoring progress should be done with an understanding that people need to be given a certain latitude in order to be productive. Wise leaders are able to find the fine balance of exercising reasonable accountability while still allowing enough breathing room for employees to do their best work.
6. Listen Intently to Feedback
Since leaders and their teams are not omniscient, there is no way for them to know every possible eventuality in advance. Even after all the worst-case scenarios are discussed and back up plans are put in place, something will likely arise that was not anticipated and that threatens to derail or delay the implementation process.
Therefore, leaders must listen to feedback from all of their employees (and also from customers, when appropriate). You cannot afford to be insular and surrounded by yes-men who refuse to tell you the naked truth about the problems as they occur. Simple, solvable problems can quickly escalate if they are not nipped in the bud.
7. Be Flexible (Within Reason)
Because implementation often reveals unanticipated problems or issues, changes must often be made on the fly. With a stream of accurate and timely information being sent your way from project managers, adjustments can be made to move the implementation process forward, even in the face of unexpected difficulties. But there should be a limit to how many adjustments are acceptable, since typically additional resources will be used for each one that becomes necessary.
8. Celebrate Incremental Achievements Along the Way
Breaking down a long execution process into smaller parts and celebrating each milestone as they are reached is a practice that allows leaders to acknowledge and recognize the hard-won accomplishments their teams are making on a more regular basis. Constantly performing at high levels over a long period of time can drain employees of their energy, which leads to burn-out and low morale. Pausing to celebrate along the way lets your employees know their efforts are valued and are not going unnoticed.
9. Share the Credit for Success With Everyone Involved
There are few things worse than leaders (at any level) who take all the credit for what they have accomplished together with their teams. It is for good reason producers have a long list of credits at the end of their films — it matters to those who contributed to the production. Leaders should be very cognizant of this fact and remember to always give credit where it is due. Failure to do so will cause their employees to resent them and undermine any camaraderie that has built up over the course of working together. Resentful employees will be less likely to execute your vision at a high level.
10. Be Willing to Abandon a Strategy or Project
This is sometimes a difficult thing to do. Very often leaders will consider a strategy or project their “baby” and have a hard time letting go. They consider scrapping it to be a personal failure and let pride override rational thought. Continual objective analysis and honest assessment should be built in to the implementation process; that will allow leaders to know when to call it quits on a failing project and end the hemorrhaging of resources.