In 1995, Eileen Shapiro published her book – “Fad Surfing in the Boardroom”. The sub-title was “Reclaiming the Courage to Manage in the Age of Instant Answers”. She defines “fad surfing” as “the practice of riding the crest of the latest management panacea and then paddling out again just in time to ride the next one; always absorbing for managers and lucrative for consultants; frequently disastrous for organisations.”
This observation by Eileen Shapiro reminded me of a comment by the GM of a $billion division of a major public company. “We have invested close to $250,000 in an in-house leadership program and I’m not sure that I’m getting my money’s worth”. Actually, I’m pretty sure he wasn’t.
I receive a fairly constant stream of fliers promoting all manner of training courses and programs on a variety of topics, each proclaiming to be the one to take your organisation to new heights of performance. Many of them relate to aspects of execution – communication skills, teamwork, change management and of course, seven ways to engage your employees and encourage them to greater discretionary effort.
Such programs are not without merit but they ignore two very significant factors. The first is that no program by itself can raise organisational performance. Second, great execution is a process – while some steps in the process can be tackled concurrently, others must be tackled sequentially. So in order to optimise the benefits of the next program you are tempted to sign up to, it pays to understand the process of execution.
The Execution Process
There are six requirements for great execution, five of which address specific topics with the sixth being Communication, the catalyst for making everything happen. The first five are as follows:
■ Management of Change
■ Leadership – at all levels
■ Teams & Teamwork
■ Employee Engagement
Each of these requirements is dependent on the ones that precede it. Thus Employee Engagement is the most dependent – which begs the question – what’s Organisational Alignment dependent on?
Organisational Alignment is dependent on the quality of the plan – and the quality of the planning process. The quality of the plan relates to its “technical” merits. Does it align the current and future capabilities and resources of the organisation to the environment in which it operates now and in the future? But, just as important, does the process used to develop the plan involve all those who will be charged with overseeing its implementation. By the time the plan is ready for execution and the initial Action Plan has been agreed, a) everyone in the organisation should understand where the organisation is now, b) everyone should understand the overall goal and the broad strategies to achieve it, and c) everyone should understand their role and its relationship to the achievement of the goal. That’s Organisational Alignment and that’s why it’s the fundamental requirement for great execution.
Management of Change
How can you manage change if you don’t know what changes are required? These changes should have been outlined in the plan, together with the rationale behind them. I’m not suggesting for one moment that managing change isn’t hard but it’s a damn sight harder if those on the receiving end do not appreciate the reasons for it. As Rosabeth Moss Kanter wrote in her book – “The Change Masters” – “change is disturbing when done to us, exhilarating when done by us”.
Leadership at all levels
The position of Leadership in the number three spot always provokes the most debate. Many argue that it should come before Organisational Alignment. But I’m not referring to Leadership at the very top of the organisation, I’m focusing on those senior, middle and lower order staff who have a direct, operational role to play in the plan’s execution. The basic requirement for leadership is a goal. Leadership and goals have a symbiotic relationship – one cannot exist without the other. If clear goals do not exist, Leadership will mirror –
The Grand Old Duke of York, he had ten thousand men
He marched them up to the top of the hill, and he marched them down again
And when they were up, they were up; and when they were down, they were down
And when they were only half way up, they were neither up nor down.
This was the problem facing the GM referred to at the start of this blog.
Teams & Teamwork
When Teams & Teamwork is the subject of a stand alone training program, my observation is that the focus tends to be on interpersonal relationships, building team culture etc. Teams and Teamwork are regarded as ends in themselves. Whereas they should be regarded as a means to an end so the starting point for team development is a purpose that is aligned to the purpose of the organisation and a goal that is similarly aligned. As Katzenback & Smith wrote in “The Wisdom of Teams” the catalyst for their formation should be a “significant performance challenge”. Organisational Alignment, Management of Change and Leadership are all prerequisites for truly effective Teams and Teamwork.
I spent four years of my working life as a member of a high performing team. They were easily the most satisfying years of my career prior to establishing my own consulting practice. If one accepts the definition of employee engagement as “the employee’s emotional connection to an organisation that inspires greater discretionary effort”, then our team had discretionary effort in spades. We were engaged in the execution of one of the company’s key growth strategies; we determined the direction of the changes required and implemented them; leadership was shared by the team members and teamwork was essential as we each contributed specialist knowledge – and deadlines were tight. We grew to respect and trust each other but it wasn’t all hard yakka. There was plenty of laughter as well. We had no formal training in teamwork and the phrase “employee engagement” had yet to be invented. But were we engaged? You bet we were!
The point is this.
Employee engagement is the most dependent of the five requirements for great execution. So there is no point in undertaking an engagement program unless the prerequisites for engagement are in place and these go right back to the planning process itself. And if they are, you might find that a stand alone engagement program is no longer necessary. Similarly, unless the organisation is aligned, programs on managing change, leadership, etc will not yield the hoped for benefits.
Communication is not referred to as “the good oil” for nothing. It is the essential lubricant for keeping the wheels of execution rolling with the minimum of resistance. I was careful to write “rolling” not “spinning”. There are many who think that the Holy Grail is a harmonious organisation that tolerates everyone’s point of view and which abhors conflict. Trouble is, that kind of organisation – if one ever existed – doesn’t actually go anywhere. It just spins its wheels. Friction is needed for forward progress, and in an organisation that means keeping everyone informed, promoting, not stifling debate and listening to the staff at the customer interface of your operation. Good communication results in a contest of ideas; poor communication in a contest of personalities. And always remember that the most powerful form of communication – for good or evil – is not what you write, nor what you say but what you do.
Graham Haines is the principal of Plans to Reality, a consultancy that specialises in the effective execution of business and strategic plans. Identifying and linking every stage in the execution process has led to the development of The Wagon Wheel Way™ Enterprise Operating System, the world’s first management framework that covers the complete operational cycle. He explores the whole issue of execution in his book – “Execution to Die For – the Manager’s Guide to Making It Happen”. See http://www.executiontodiefor.com He can be contacted via his web site firstname.lastname@example.org