Implementation – what universities don’t teach – and won’t? – and can’t? – and should!

untitledI’m a bit of a bower bird when it comes to quotations and one that I have always treasured is by 19th Century reformer, essayist, critic, artist – John Ruskin. “What we think, or what we know, or what we believe, is, in the end of little consequence. The only consequence is what we do”.

The ability to get things done – to make it happen – is the quality that most distinguishes great managers from those that merely bear the title as descriptive of the role they are charged to perform. Great managers are rare – so rare in fact that the best of them end up being feted by their peers, honoured by their governments and writing their memoirs.

Given that the ability to execute is the ultimate worth of a manager, one would think that execution would find a place in any university degree program, particularly those programs that have an emphasis on management or HR. Instead what we find is a modular program structure where each topic or subject is a self-contained unit. This modularity facilitates program reviews as units that are thought to have passed their use-by dates can be unplugged and new units inserted. The great majority of these units relate to the technicalities of the subject studied. I have no problem with this. After all, if I employ an IT specialist or a chemist or if I use the services of an Occupational Therapist, then my first requirement is that those people have a technical grasp of the discipline that they have chosen to study.

BUT … if our salesman or brand manager or accountant is any good at his or her job, inevitably they will either be promoted or, if promotion is denied them, seek employment with another employer to further their career. Quite suddenly, the emphasis of their job and the skill set they need to perform it, changes. The hard technical skills become less important than the soft people skills. The key to their success in managerial positions lies in their ability – to quote Dwight Eisenhower – “to get someone else to do what you want because he wants to do it”. It’s still necessary to do the right thing – but hopefully the technical skills will take care of that – the challenge is to do it right – and make it happen.

Conventional wisdom has it that such managerial and leadership skills are learned on the job from your supervisor or manager. I would argue that the current work environment is not conducive to this happening. My anecdotal experience is that the standards of people management are in decline. So shouldn’t it be taught at university? By “it” I don’t mean a unit on teamwork or one on leadership or another on change management – I mean a unit on execution from whoa to go that incorporates all aspects of making it happen. Yet there seems great reluctance on the part of academics to even consider such a unit.

A couple of years ago, I gave a 20 minute presentation on this subject to the members of a Commerce Advisory Board at the University’s Faculty of Business and Law. At its end, despite the fact that no one argued against my hypothesis or questioned any aspect of the hand-outs that were given, there was not even a reference to my presentation in the subsequent minutes of the meeting! Was this an oversight or was it a deliberate attempt to bury the topic?

I suspect it was the latter because I subsequently wrote an article entitled “The Human Side of Planning” in which I claimed that the seeds of success or failure to implement were sown the moment the planners sat down to plan. The article was submitted to the Editor – himself an academic – of an international journal on management. I quote from the email of rejection.

It’s very interesting, but not suitable for an academic journal. Academic journal papers are based on a different approach and have a different objective. Academic papers focus on making small and highly focused extensions to existing knowledge on one very clearly defined issue – either through testing or proposing relationships which are generated from multidimensional perspectives. Academic papers move along fairly linear lines to develop theory in incremental stages and are very clinical.”

The reviewer went on to say that Your article, however, is more holistic and extensive and is more appropriate for a practitioner audience (who would be interested in this type of perspective)”. When I asked another academic whether he would consider using my book “Execution to Die For – the Manager’s Guide to Making It Happen” as a reference for his students, his response was that he couldn’t do this because of the lack of references to other publications. In reality the book has over 50 references but the majority are to people who have been there and done that – or haven’t done that – not to academic research programs. I can only conclude that academics won’t contemplate the inclusion of a unit on execution.

But even if they did, I have doubts as to their ability to develop such a unit. As the reviewer of my article said, the subject matter “is more holistic and extensive” and thus by inference would not be of interest to academics. And I only wrote about a small part of the overall topic! Nevertheless, if the subject matter is not of academic interest, it seems a fair conclusion to make that academics would have great difficulty in developing a unit on this topic. I’m not suggesting that no academics have the ability to appreciate the inter-connectivity of our existence or the ability to weave topics and issues into a cohesive tapestry but the trouble is, they’re all on television making documentary series!

I appreciate that some universities now promote “personal edge” and “capstone” courses but again I would argue that these are still stand alone and rely on the student’s own capacity to see any connections between them. Great execution is a process and, like any process, a) the steps to it are in a specific sequence and b) they can be learned. Still, one might hope that units on team dynamics, interpersonal skills and the adoption of a global mindset might enhance a graduate’s ability at execution. This is not the case. There are too many factors in the current organisational environment that militate against great execution. Change is too frequent; competition between employees is intense; job security is a thing of the past; tenure in the one position has become shorter and shorter – and all these factors develop a “me” rather than “we” mentality. And yet the great achievers, when asked about the reasons for their ability to make things happen, all give credit to the employees they manage. “It was a team effort” is the almost inevitable comment.

It seems to me to be a sad state of affairs that an understanding of what’s involved in developing plans and bringing them successfully to fruition through others is not part of the academic curricula. The reality is that as the work environment becomes ever more hostile to great execution, the need for managers who understand how to make it happen becomes ever more pressing.

Graham Haines is the principal of Plans to Reality, a consultancy that specialises in the issues of implementation. His most recent book – “Achieving Execution to Die For – a Simple Guide to Making It Happen” – condenses the complete operational cycle from planning and execution to monitoring, measuring and modifying into a mere 18,500 words, taking an hour to read. It also identifies 36 barriers to great execution and how to overcome them. The book is available in hard and soft copy from his web site – http://www.planstoreality.com.au – and you can download the first section of the book – “The Purpose of this Guide and how to use it” for free.                       

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