June 2011 | Strategy
“When you’re talking about the failure to implement strategy, the question you should be asking is ‘why?’ Why do some really great initiatives never get done? The cycle of planning and passing those plans off to be executed continues without questioning why execution so often doesn’t happen.”
Mario Moussa, who specializes in large-scale organizational changes, knows about execution. Having taught organizational culture for several years in Wharton’s executive program, Implementing Strategy: Leading Effective Execution, Moussa says learning more about why people follow through — and why they don’t — is key to improving execution success rates.
“The data about why plans don’t succeed shows that about two-thirds fail because of culture. Different functional areas have their own ways of thinking, speaking, and perceiving. These cultural differences act like a filter through which someone hears and understands your initiative. If your initiative doesn’t get communicated through that filter, it’s not going to get done,” says Moussa, who is also co-academic director of Strategic Persuasion Workshop: The Art and Science of Selling Ideas and co-author (with Richard Shell) of The Art of Woo: Using Strategic Persuasion to Sell Your Ideas.
“Think about the character of Jake Sully in Avatar. He traveled to another planet where everybody was big and blue, and he became effective by becoming like them. He learned who they were and understood their culture. Leaders need that skill today. They need to understand what a plan looks like from the perspective of, for example, finance, sales, or manufacturing. When you speak to people in their language, you can get them excited about the strategy, and they become committed to seeing it through.”
In addition to cultural differences, people’s interests act as another filter. Moussa continues, “We’re all hardwired to pursue our own interests. It’s part of a leader’s role to anticipate tension points where personal or functional interests don’t align with the plan you want to execute. How might you find some kind of accommodation when it’s appropriate?”
While he doesn’t suggest making accommodation a habit, ignoring the fact that there is no true support for your plan doesn’t work either. Getting people on board and generating engagement is crucial. “People run out of energy when they’re doing something that they don’t really want to do,” notes Moussa. “They may force themselves to get involved, but eventually that energy is exhausted. Willpower is a limited resource. So simply using formal authority won’t work.”
He continues, “You need to mix your formal authority with storytelling, with engaging people, with exciting them. That requires a kind of leap of imagination, an understanding of what it’s like to be another person and what will appeal to their interests. Leaders in today’s business world can rarely just tell people what to do. It doesn’t work. It goes back to Avatar: to be most effective, you need to be able to be in someone else’s shoes. What appeals to their interests, and how can you best communicate that?”
Larry Hirschhorn, a founding partner in the Center for Applied Research, suggests using three types of campaigns when selling your plan. Moussa stresses that this approach “is particularly effective for implementing strategy. First, you launch a marketing campaign. When you think like a marketer, you’re collecting data, talking to your people, getting a sense of what they think about and what’s important to them. It sounds simple, but it’s rarely done. Too often we just assume that everybody thinks like we do. Archie Norman, the former CEO of ASDA who turned the company around, knew better. He made unannounced visits to his supermarkets, questioning staff and customers to collect unfiltered information about how the company needed to improve.”
The second campaign is political. Identify and build support among a group of key people. In an engineering company, that would be engineers. In a manufacturing company, it might be shop floor managers. “You need to pay a lot of political attention to these people,” says Moussa. “Identify with their interests and understand their perspectives.”
Finally, to get your plan implemented run a military-style campaign. This involves action. “You need to be very clear about the specific behaviors you’re asking people to engage in. Abstract communication doesn’t work in the military, and it doesn’t work when you’re trying to implement a strategy. Bringing that strategy down to a level of day-to-day behavior that really matters is critical.
“Steve Jobs is the master at this. When he came back to Apple, he concluded that they had too many products. He said they were going to retire most of them and focus on just four. That was important in helping turn the company around. Apple had lost its focus, and Jobs’ strategy for regaining it was in part to get everyone behind the decision to work with four products. Great leaders are able to link big ideas to specific behaviors that they then ask people to engage in.”
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