December 2019 | 

Execution Success: Learning How to Get Things Done

Execution Success: Learning How to Get Things Done

If you’ve recently been tasked with executing a change initiative, or are trying to figure out why your firm’s last strategy failed to be implemented, you might be aware that you’re in good company. Getting things done — executing both organization-wide strategies and smaller initiatives — is rare at many companies. Depending on where you look, the execution failure rate is anywhere from 65 to 90 percent. It’s not surprising, then, that a survey of over 400 global CEOs revealed that a lack of execution excellence was their top challenge, beating out innovation, geopolitical instability, and top-line growth.

Knowing those dismal numbers, you may have decided to dig in and learn how and why others failed. You won’t have to look far: a recent Google search came up with “Three Reasons Why Good Strategies Fail,” “Why Strategy Execution Fails (4 Common Issues),” “Five Reasons Most Companies Fail at Strategy Execution,” and even “10 Reasons Why Businesses Fail to Execute their Strategies” — to name just a few.

There’s obviously no shortage of advice, but, says Wharton Management professor Nicolaj Siggelkow, “there’s only so much you can do with an article. Everyone acknowledges that most initiatives fail — not just strategies with a capital S, but smaller initiatives too. To really make a dent, and change the way you handle execution, you can’t just rely on reading.”

Siggelkow says the high rate of failure is “exactly why we have the week-long Effective Execution of Organizational Strategy program. Everyone struggles with execution, whether you’re a business, a government agency, or a nonprofit.” The good news is you can learn how to succeed. The program is a hands-on workshop that addresses all of the key barriers to execution. Grounded in research, it leverages the work of seven Wharton professors who teach in the school’s MBA program.

Participants bring an actual execution challenge from their workplace and spend the week applying what they are learning to that challenge. That starts with identifying and learning how to address potential barriers. Then, the focus shifts to creating momentum for new initiatives. Siggelkow has participants figure out every person they need to talk to, inside and outside the organization, and then craft the right message.

“You may need to have different messages for different people. Not everyone will get excited about the way you frame it to appeal to those in finance, for example,” he says. “And those outside your function and business unit may have competing interests so you need to make the case in a way that resonates with them. But underlying all of these messages is an understanding of the firm’s strategy so you can make a strong argument for how the initiative helps it.”

Throughout the week, participants work with and learn from each other. “This is one of the great values of an open enrollment program,” says Siggelkow. “At industry events, the learning is limited, and firms don’t talk openly when a competitor may be in the room. Effective Execution draws an international cross-section of leaders from a range of industries and non-business organizations, and as they share their challenges, they get feedback from each other. It can be eye-opening to find out that someone working at a government agency in the Middle East or Africa is dealing with the same kinds of issues you are.”

The week ends with a Strategy Execution workshop that pulls together all of the frameworks that have been shared in class. Participants apply them to the project they brought with them, and develop a detailed approach for addressing it. “At the end of the day,” Siggelkow says, “the week’s lessons are both practical and actionable. They come with a problem and leave with a plan in hand that they can start using on Monday morning.”