Four Critical Tasks of Strategic Execution

INTRODUCTION

One of the toughest challenges CEOs face is translating their strategy into execution and results. In most cases, the primary difference between those who succeed at this task and those who don’t is the adoption of a comprehensive strategic execution process driven by the CEO and his or her senior executive team.

For a strategic execution process to be comprehensive, it should include tools and methodologies that help CEOs and their teams accomplish four critical tasks.

GENERATE SOUND STRATEGIC THINKING

Sound strategic thinking is fundamental to successful strategic execution because it stimulates dialog and debate about what is most important to the organization’s long-term success. It also uncovers issues, reveals different perspectives and provides alternative scenarios, all of which lead to improved decision making and solid strategic execution.

The trap many CEOs and executive teams fall into is believing that sound strategic thinking means coming up with a single “right” answer that goes into a box on a form. Or, that once an answer has been put into a box, that the task is complete.

In reality, sound strategic thinking is not discrete. It is iterative, because all organizations exist within dynamic marketplaces. The key is to do the best strategic thinking that can be done at the time, and then execute.

IDENTIFY AND SET ACCOUNTABILITIES FOR THE TOP PRIORITIES

Ultimately, strategic execution is about identifying the organization’s top priorities — the three to five most important items that the organization must accomplish over the next three years, during the current year, and within each quarter of the current year.

It is not uncommon to generate a lot of action items during strategic planning and then fail to prioritize which ones represent the critical few. When this occurs, the organization has no priorities because everything becomes a priority. Prioritizing requires tough discipline and facing the brutal facts.

ESTABLISH AN EXECUTIVE-TEAM MEETING RHYTHM THAT DRIVES STRATEGIC THINKING AND THE ACCOMPLISHMENT OF THE TOP PRIORITIES.

The mechanism for driving strategic execution is a meeting rhythm that brings the CEO and executive team together into annual, quarterly, monthly, weekly and daily meetings. The purpose of each meeting is to focus on accomplishing the organization’s top priorities and accelerating the growth of the organization. While the meeting rhythm structure is relatively simple, it requires a high degree of discipline.

Annual strategic planning session. The meeting rhythm should begin with an annual strategic planning session of at least two days in length, held at an offsite location. During this session, the CEO and executive team engage in sound strategic thinking about how well they are executing their business strategies and achieving the targets they set. They also assess their long-term business assumptions and conduct a traditional SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis that provides a current understanding of their marketplace and their true capabilities as an organization.

The team should first identify the three-year top three to five priorities, followed by the top three to five priorities for the upcoming year, which should have a consistent line of sight with the three-year priorities. For the upcoming year, the CEO and team should clearly establish the number one priority that must be accomplished by the organization.

Next, the team sets the top three to five priorities for the first quarter of the upcoming year, making sure to identify a number one priority for the quarter. To ensure appropriate focus, each priority is assigned to an one executive who is accountable for leading the team’s effort to accomplish it.

Quarterly planning session. At these full-day, off-site sessions, the CEO and executive team assess how well they accomplished their priorities for the quarter that just ended and establish the number one priority and top three to five priorities for the next quarter. The primary question at these sessions is, “Based on what we know today, what are the most important and impactful items that the organization needs to accomplish in the next quarter to accomplish its annual priorities and targets and move closer to attaining its envisioned future?”

Monthly team meetings. These meetings focus on the current quarter’s priorities and address the following:

  • How are we going to accomplish our current quarter priorities?
  • What resources do we need to accomplish our current quarter priorities?
  • What progress have we made toward accomplishing our current quarter priorities and have any obstacles surfaced that we must address?

It is often appropriate to include middle management in all or part of the monthly team meetings. This helps to develop the organization’s future executives by giving them a chance to work alongside the current executives on important strategic initiatives.

Weekly team meetings. During these meetings, which should last from 60 to 90 minutes, the CEO and team need to have the most current data available, including typical sales, operational and financial data, as well as employee and customer data. The agenda should include 30 to 45 minutes to work on one specific topic or one of the quarter’s priorities. Once defined, the topic should be carried to conclusion. Do not waste time debating several different topics that cannot be brought to conclusion.

Daily huddle. This 5 to 15 minute standup meeting should be held at the same time and in the same location each day. (Those in remote locations can participate by phone.) The daily huddle provides a specific opportunity to identify “what’s up and where is the team stuck.” Any problem solving should be handled offline. The daily huddle is preventative in nature and typically helps the team avoid a major problem once or twice a week.

Functional team meeting rhythms. Just as an executive team meeting rhythm helps the CEO and executive team become and stay aligned, functional team rhythm meetings help the rest of the organization become and stay aligned. They do this by bringing the functional teams together into monthly, weekly and daily meetings that focus on supporting the accomplishment of the priorities established during the executive team’s annual and quarterly strategic sessions. In addition, meeting rhythms helps create clarity throughout the organization on who they are, where they are going and what they need to do to get there.

CREATE ORGANIZATIONAL CLARITY AND ALIGNMENT

Fundamental to successful strategic execution is the CEO’s and executive team’s ability to gain clarity on the organization’s strategy. They should be able to articulate the strategy on a one-page document that highlights the organization’s:

Core Ideology (who the organization is) Its core values or unique and enduring tenets  Its core purpose or reason for being (besides making money)

Envisioned Future (where the organization is going) Its hedgehog, or what it can be the best in the world at  Its BHAG, or long-term big, hairy, audacious goal Its vivid descriptions, or what it will look like when it attains the BHAG

Market Positioning (what the organization is going to do to get to its envisioned future)

  • Mission. A simple description of the business it is in.
  • Strategic anchors. The unique things it does to deliver on its mission.
  • Sandbox. The products and services it offers and the markets it serves.
  • Value proposition. The unique value it offers the market.
  • Brand promise. The unconditional guarantee it offers to customers.

Even more important than understanding who the organization is, where it is going and what it is going to do to get there, is how it will get there. The how is the secret sauce. It is the organizational alignment that occurs through smart and healthy teamwork that makes a comprehensive strategic execution process successful.

To obtain organizational alignment and smart and healthy teamwork, CEOs and executive teams need to act cohesively and focus on:

  • Getting the right people on the bus and in the right seats
  • Creating a culture of disciplined people, thought and action
  • Preserving the core and stimulating progress

To get results from strategic planning, CEOs and executive teams need to use a comprehensive execution process. The goal of this process is to produce concrete results that move the organization toward its envisioned future, using the tools and methodologies highlighted in this article.

Jim Alampi is managing director and an owner of Alampi & Associates LLC, a business coaching and leadership development firm based in Novi, Mich.

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