January 2016 | 

Leading Effective Execution: Overcoming Six Deadly Obstacles

Leading Effective Execution: Overcoming Six Deadly Obstacles

“However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results” — Sir Winston Churchill

According to Wharton professor Larry Hrebiniak, many companies have good strategies. Where they go wrong, says the author of Making Strategy Work: Leading Effective Execution, is in the implementation. “Execution is the hard part. But the good news is that there are specific tools you can use to overcome even the most formidable obstacles. When you understand the key factors involved, and determine which need your attention, you can approach execution logically and improve the odds for success.”

Hrebiniak interviewed hundreds of managers involved in strategy execution for his book, and has worked with hundreds more as academic director of Making Strategy Work: Leading Effective Execution. Both the book and the executive education program focus on the knowledge, capabilities, and insights leaders need for execution success. He notes, “Even great leaders in top management positions will fail if they’re not well-versed in the conditions that affect execution success. They need to understand what makes strategy work. Intuition and personality simply aren’t sufficient given such a complex task.”

To address that complexity, the program approaches implementation from a range of lenses including talent management, leadership, organizational culture, and change management. Hrebiniak says the diverse faculty have adapted content over time to address new issues being confronted by the participants. “Participants used to be mostly from the United States and working in manufacturing. Today, about 60 percent of the participants are coming from outside the U.S., and they represent a wide range of industries, including banking, law, and medicine, that we didn’t formerly see in a strategic execution program.”

But no matter the company, industry, or culture, Hrebiniak says six obstacles represent the majority of execution failures. And while you might not be able to pull a lever on all of them, solid leadership on even a few can improve your strategic outcomes. He advises participants in the program to focus on areas in which they have leverage, and start small.

  1. Poor planning. “Many strategies fail to consider implementation,” says Hrebiniak. “Without a plan, you are really just hoping for execution. In the program we talk about ways to clarify responsibility and accountability, and teach a model that integrates planning and doing.” Elements of control are also included, which are useful in tracking performance against objectives.
  2. Lack of coordination and integration. “Strategic objectives call for organization-wide, integrated efforts,” he explains. “If you don’t have coordination across functions, critical steps may be skipped.” Stakeholder analysis can be helpful for determining who needs to do what and where.
  3. Improper incentives. If one group is focused on volume, another on service, and yet another on profitability, these differing objectives will get in the way of coordination and integration. Conflicts can occur, affecting cooperation negatively.
  4. People. Because more people are usually involved in execution than in planning, getting buy-in can be more difficult. Communication issues can also arise, making it hard to disseminate necessary information.
  5. Culture. This obstacle is getting more attention in the program as participants increasingly view it as an important issue. “It might be overstated occasionally,” says Hrebiniak, “but culture is a critical variable. You may be trying to do the impossible if your strategy doesn’t take organizational culture into account.”
  6. Leadership. Because implementation often involves the need for change, you need people who can manage it well. Poor leadership will almost certainly doom execution efforts. In the program, participants learn different leadership styles, what they are useful for, and under what conditions they should be used.