“Strategy is easy and execution is hard. “ Anyone not heard that before? Bueller?
Couple more classics: “Strategy is about choices.” Hard to disagree with that one.
“Do more with less.” If you haven’t heard or said this, well, hope you’re enjoying your trust fund.
These all appear insightful, but none of them dig deep enough to provide any actual guidance or help.
Execution is hard, and hardly any organization consistently does strategic change well. I see and hear this all the time in the classes I teach, the companies I consult with, and customers of my software firm.
We’re all smart, work hard and care deeply, right? And we all think we’re better at strategy than Machiavelli. So why is strategic change so hard?
Fundamentally, we don’t like change. And we don’t really like to think. We want to get up, make the coffee, feed the dog, ignore any Kardashian news while consuming cute pet videos, drive to work and get on with our day. We get SO irritated when anything interrupts our morning routine or our driving routine or our email routine and requires us to actually think.
Inertia prevents us from thinking deeply since the reality is we really don’t think that much in any given day, we mostly react. When was the last time you stopped answering emails or writing a presentation to go have a good think about your strategy and what was really going on with your business? How many hours at work this week did you spend focusing specifically on longer term issues and initiatives?
Another huge culprit for the lack of strategic success is optimism and the culture of almost every organization. It’s not that we don’t like optimism, although hardly anything is more annoying when others are optimistic about stuff they don’t know squat about. But optimism gets companies to say yes to everything, and progress gets to be harder and harder as staffs have become leaner.
Culturally, the boss needs to show lots of activity, and cutting strategic imperatives is rarely a career builder. I had a boss at Coke (where brutalizing employees was an art form) who when I asked for help in setting priorities, said “your priority is to get everything done, and if you can’t do it, I’ll find someone who will.” That’s an actual quote. That’s the norm in our highly competitive world where you believe you’re failing if you don’t try and do every single possible activity that might remotely be a good thing.
Organizations consistently over estimate what they can accomplish in a year. One of the minor functionalities of the strategic planning software that my firm sells is that it adds up time people are expected to spend on strategic initiatives. You know the drill, the annual planning process comes around, you all agree on goals and objectives, and you get put on a bunch of teams to go get strategic stuff done. You can’t really say no to any of them because you like to eat regularly, and you’re off to the races.
There’s always too much work
Our software shows us that organizations typically sign up for about 5 times the amount of work they actually have the capacity to deliver. 5 times. That can be the the equivalent of 10 or more full time employees. Why? Because we’re engaged and want to try to make things better. We’re optimistic. And because no one tells the boss, “yeah, I don’t have time to work on strategic priorities number 3 -5, maybe I can get to that next year.”
So strategy is first about good choices, but strategic success comes from truly understanding organizational capacity and the true amount of work those strategic choices require to come to life.
Learn how to say no, and make it stick. Say “yes” to the most impactful one or two strategic imperatives and actually focus and make adequate resources available to making them happen.
A useful routine is to block out time time several hours per week to do nothing but think about and work on strategy. If you don’t purposefully build it into your routine, the “tyranny of the now” and endless meetings, emails, and fire drills will continually keep you from making any strategic progress.
But first, be bold and make a choice. Then say no to things that won’t get accomplished this year anyway.