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Strategy: focus on the execution

Release Date

28 January 2014

HR often promotes itself as a ‘strategic business partner’, and surveys have shown it is spending increasing amounts of its time on strategic work. But there is more to this than formulating strategy — often, not enough effort is put into executing it.

A recent interview with Lawrence G Hrebiniak, published on the website Knowledge@Australian School of Business, provides some practical advice on what to do. Hrebiniak is the author of the Making Strategy Work: Leading Effective Execution and Change.

Why is execution of strategy often ignored?

According to Hrebiniak, the two main reasons are that execution of strategy is often viewed as a lower-level task or concern (so is ignored by managers), and the organisation lacks a ‘culture of execution’.

The strategic planning stage is generally a lot more appealing to managers. It is more focused, doesn’t take as long to do and often deals with interesting conceptual issues and exercises such as brainstorming and scenario planning. Execution, on the other hand, takes longer, involves more people, demands the consideration and integration of many key variables or activities, and requires effective feedback or control systems to monitor progress.

A further problem is that the execution process can be derailed by changes that occur over time, such as management turnover, competitors’ responses to the strategy, changing economic/competitive/political conditions, and changes to markets, industry structure, etc. These factors can make it difficult to keep those involved committed to the requirements of execution, particularly if at the same time they are required to achieve other short-term results for the organisation. These short-term pressures, combined with the sometimes tedious and frustrating elements of strategy execution, will encourage managers to divert most of their attention to dealing with ‘current’ issues instead.

Common mistakes

Hrebiniak said that there is a tendency for managers to believe that they have done all the hard work in planning and deciding on the strategy, so it is somewhat beneath them to also be involved in day-to-day execution and they are happy to delegate it and not follow-up on progress or provide adequate support. Poor communication and cultural rifts often result from this attitude.

Other common mistakes include the following:

  • Managers assume that execution is a quick, one-shot decision or action (‘ready, aim execute’; or, worse, ‘ready, execute, aim’). This ignores all the relationships between key variables, decisions and actions, which may include structure, incentives, controls, coordination, culture and change management processes. Implementation processes will usually be complex. Implementation doesn’t ‘just happen’.
  • A good strategy may be seen as sufficient motivation on its own for effective execution. It is assumed that the benefits and logic of the strategic plan are so obvious that people will automatically act in ways to make it succeed. However, it also requires resources, incentives and strong communication to support it and obtain buy-in. Managers and employees also require guidance about their roles in the execution process.
  • Managers assume that an inadequate strategy can be made to work if it is executed well. However, good strategy is a prerequisite for effective execution.
  • Failure to have a solid plan for execution. This should be an integral part of the strategy itself, setting out the key decisions and actions required, as well as the relationships and interactions between key factors.
  • Responsibility and accountability for decisions and actions must be clear and agreed to, with areas of overlapping responsibility and those requiring cooperation set out and committed to by key people.
  • Poor understanding of how organisation structure works, and the costs and benefits of different types of structures.
  • Insufficient attention to change management processes. If they are ignored or handled poorly, resistance to attempts to execute strategy is likely to result.

How to become more focused on better strategy execution

Hrebiniak said that the fundamental requirement for improving strategy execution is to create a ‘culture of execution’. Culture is both an independent causal factor of behaviour and a dependent factor affected by behaviour.

He recommended creating and reinforcing behaviours and performance programs that are strong enough to become an integral part of how the organisation operates, ie its culture. To do so requires the following:

  • Set out all the key decisions, actions and capabilities needed for successful execution.
  • Support the model and execution plan with effective incentives and controls.
  • Create structures and processes that support desired strategic and operating objectives.
  • Manage strategy execution as a change management process in which agreement and commitment from all stakeholders are sought and appropriately rewarded.

Mike Toten is a freelance writer and editor who specialises in research and writing about HR best practices, industrial relations, equal employment opportunity and related areas.

Mike has over 30 years' writing experience, including writing and editing Human Resources Management (CCH Australia) for many years and many other CCH publications. More recently, he has been a regular contributor to WorkplaceInfo.

For more information on Workplace relations, issues and best practice head to www.workplaceinfo.com.au

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