Three Crucial Elements to Strategy Execution

Three Crucial Elements to Strategy Execution

Have you ever worked with someone and wished they would think more?  So much so that you ended up getting more and more frustrated with their mindless questions and inability to accomplish simple tasks. It’s also possible that you might have questioned how they even managed to arrive at work in the morning.

Well, the good news is that you were probably right. You’re colleague wasn’t thinking (and yes, you are obviously much smarter than them).

As it happens, most humans don’t do much conscious thinking at all.

In fact, Henry Ford once said:

“Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason so few engage in it.”

It’s been estimated that 95% of the time, humans are operating from their subconscious mind, which means they are just replaying old programs of how to behave.  Only 5% of the time people are actually using their conscious mind meaning that they are intentionally working towards creating their dreams and desires.  The rest of the time humans are just on autopilot and not making any new decisions. That’s why your cerebrally challenged workmate was able to make it to work each day, by just following the same routine.

While this sounds particularly ominous for the human race (and is it any wonder, we haven’t designed a time machine yet?), it is all part of a grand design to help us survive. If we didn’t repeat old programs of behaviour, our brains would go into over-drive trying to achieve basic behaviours such as walking and choosing what foods to eat.  This would actually stop us from actively pursuing activities we really love to do such as finding old flames on Facebook and ingeniously disguising green vegetables as brown food, so that our children will eat them.

Fortunately, there are times when we actually make conscious decisions. These can miraculously occur when we are focused on learning a new task at work or a goal.   This is good news if you want to engage employees on a new business strategy.  However, the bad news is few companies know how to harness people’s inherent need to achieve goals.

Instead, they assume people needed to be told what to do and essentially treat them like sheep that needed to be herded.  What these leaders misunderstand, is that it is how they are communicating and administering the goals that is causing resistance.  Without ensuring that you connect to the conscious brain, employees will revert to being unconscious and play out their same daily routines giving lip service to a new strategy. 

Successful, fast growth companies know the secret behind getting momentum on goals. They know that if you communicate and support goals the right way it becomes automatic and turns into a new organisational habit.  This is key to the company continually moving forward, rather than staying stuck.

A Collection of Habits

Essentially, workplaces are just one giant collection of habits. These provide the thousands of unwritten rules under which organisations function. After all, culture is really all about how people behave in an organisation. Habits can be detrimental or fundamental to an organisation.  Moreover, habits have a profound impact on how people make decisions and work.

Interestingly, there is one curious fact about habits. They catalyze change in more areas than just one.

According to the book, The Power of Habits, by Charles Duhigg, keystone habits, are critical habits, so that when you dislodge one, it starts the process of remaking other forms of behaviour.

For example, exercise is a keystone habit. Studies have found that when people begin to exercise it has an effect on other areas of their life. People start to eat better, use credit cards less, become more patient with colleagues, and even become more productive at work after doing regular exercise.

Furthermore, safety has also been found to be a keystone habit. In fact, during the late 1980’s former Alcoa CEO Paul O’Neill transformed the floundering organisation from a declining $5 billion market capitalisation to $27 billion in his last year in 2001. Laser-like focus on improving safety flowed on to increase productivity, product quality, cost control and even, sales.

Alcoa was totally transformed by just improving poor safety habits. Nothing else. One of the first steps was getting attention on safety matters, in order to break up old patterns and create new ones (you can read more at: Is this the best Safety Speech ever?).

However, transforming habits company wide can only be achieved with business leaders who are adept at creating the right conditions, so that new behaviours can flourish. Without conscious weeding of behaviours, inertia sets in, making it hard to achieve goals and change.

All Talk, No Action

Research by Timothy Devinney from the University of Technology Sydney found that 70% of employees could not identify the publicly presented corporate strategy of their employer.  Of more concern is a recent study by Harvard Business Review that found 95% of employees do not understand how their day-to-day activities contribute to the strategy set by the executive team.

According to a recent survey of more than 400 global CEOs, executional excellence topped the list of some 80 issues that are facing corporate leaders in Asia, Europe and the United States.  Execution is tough work.  Studies have found a high two-thirds to three-quarters of large companies fail to implement their strategies.

There are three reasons why a lot of companies have trouble getting their workforce to execute a new strategy.  

The first one is a failure to create the right organisational environment to support execution, while the second is poor quality communication that fails to connect the work needed to be done to execute the strategy and the third is a lack of strategic thinking.

1. Setting up the Right Organisational Culture for Strategy

Essentially, the job of a CEO is to continually find ways of getting other people to do their best work in service of a shared goal.  This means creating the right organisational environment that enables employees to do their best work, in order to reach a company goal.

Most companies dedicate a lot of time to creating their strategies, but fail to spend any time on ensuring they have the right culture to implement it.  Your culture provides the foundation for your company’s growth.  It’s important that you have the right routines and habits to reach your goal.

Say for example you wanted to lose weight.  Without changing your daily and weekly eating habits, you’ll never reach your ideal weight (unless you happen to come down with violent gastro (not recommended) or food runs out (not going to happen)).  Goals without routines are just hopes, while routines without goals are directionless.  

Savvy business leaders paint a picture of the future and build the right workplace habits and routines to make it a reality.

Great cultures aren’t accidental.  It’s important to purposefully design your own signature culture.  This means looking at the key capabilities and skills required to design the right projects, set goals and achieve them.  There are many different types of behaviours that you might want to champion, depending on what you wish to remove.

For example, toxic workplaces display behaviours that work against people working together to help customers.  Poor habits include hiding information, gossiping, a lack of accountability, a lack of ideas, department rivalry and so on.  While positive behaviours include going the extra mile for customers, collaborating with others, fast decision making, getting things done on time, happy employees, providing constructive feedback and getting it solved etc.

It doesn’t matter what positive behaviours you strengthen.  All that matters is that it is authentic and true to your company DNA and works towards executing your goals fast. CEOs must work out how they will build and maintain a culture that is in alignment with the core ideology of the company, while being sustainable.  

2. Communicate to Align

Communication is the number one issue in an organisation as the number of people increase.  Unfortunately, most companies go about communicating in a way that works against how people actually make decisions. Given that humans use past patterns of behaviour to know what to do, organisations need to make a concentrated effort to transform old habits into new ones. That’s why one email being sent by a senior manager mandating people change or a communication campaign that coincides nicely with the employee brand complete with a vacuous slogan always fails.

As mentioned before, our brains operate in survival mode.  To get a message through, we need repeated and consistent information.

There is only way proven way to improve strategy communication.  And that is by creating a robust routine that gets everyone talking and sharing company information every day. And that means – meetings.

Yes, meetings.  The very word can send shivers down any manager’s spine.  The reason is that every single one of us who has attended them has at least attended one that was a massive waste of time.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  Meetings reflect your culture and great cultures ensure people walk away from their meetings feeling energised, aligned and focused.

Many great business leaders have used daily meetings to transform their companies into growth machines from Steve Jobs, Jack Welch to John Rockefeller.  Structured correctly, meetings ensure information is communicated quickly and accurately and avoids potential costly problems.  It also helps workplaces thrive.

According to a Watson Wyatt Communication ROI study, organisations that communicate effectively are 4.5 times more likely to report high employee engagement compared to other firms. Not surprisingly, they also three times more likely to be focused on behaviour change, rather than program cost.

But employee engagement doesn’t occur in a vacuum. While executive leaders set the tone of communication, all managers throughout an organisation must have the right skills to influence and engage on strategy, as well as other important workplace issues.  Importantly, every individual understands how their work contributes to the company goal.

A multitude of research studies have found that when employees are meaningfully engaged in their work it drives business outcomes in better cost control, reduced employee turnover, greater employee loyalty, better customer service, higher product quality and safety. Engaging employees is a keystone habit. You focus on engagement and voilá – the organisation reaps benefits in a myriad of areas.

Great workplace communication is about repeating the company’s purpose and values and how that ties into people’s work using stories, metaphors and visuals  It’s also about repeating the company strategy and goals and showing visual progress.

It’s also multi-directional, rather than top-down.  This means collecting daily or weekly feedback from customers and employees to fix any potential roadblocks or issues. Companies that grow faster, pulse faster.  They ensure communication is flowing in all directions, so that the right decisions are being made.

3. Daily Strategic Thinking

Strategy planning involves two components – strategic thinking and execution.  In today’s fast changing business environment, strategy planning is more of a process of continuous evolution.  Change is now happening so fast that companies can no longer afford to have a static strategic plan that remains unchanged for 3-5 years.

One of the distinguishing features of successful companies is that they have laser-like focus on working on their strategy every day.  The majority of companies lurch from one crisis to another, immersed in the day to day and rarely even consider their future (or just do it once a quarter).  The danger is that because they have their eyes off the marketplace, they are more likely to make strategy decisions that are ineffectual and sometimes just plain wrong.  In today’s marketplace, you need the flexibility to respond to fast-changing markets and need to have your finger on the pulse every day.

Last year, Terry’s Tortes and Tarts, a $7 million a year bakery company went into administration, shortly after purchasing new equipment to gear up for an increase of forecasted sales that never materialised.  When questioned by the liquidator as to why the company failed, the response was “The directors acknowledge that their strategic decisions haven’t worked out as they hoped”.

Your company strategy can’t be based on hopes and dreams.  It has to be based on both qualitative and quantitative data from your marketplace, global trends, advisors and customers.

Research has found that to be a great company, executives need to spend 80% of their working week dedicated to strategy.   Yes, I can hear you gulp, that’s 80%. When executives no longer speak to customers frequently, they miss out on important market feedback.  Without the right feedback loop, you’ll lose your feel for the business and create unrealistic business strategies and your company’s ability to execute will suffer

It’s important for executives to spend time every week with customers, asking the right questions, so that you have up to date information on your industry and competitors. High performance companies such as GE, Walmart and Apple have their executives out in the field every day, reporting customer feedback each week and acting on it weekly.

Additionally, train your employees to provide you with real time customer comments on a weekly basis. This provides an “outside-in” perspective that makes it easier for you to correctly forecast, formulate the right strategy and excel in customer driven innovation.  Inevitably, it is during these customer feedback (and employee) feedback sessions that will provide you with one, or even two, strong ideas to formulate your strategy and ensure that it is more than just a hope.

Putting it All Together

If you want to have your finger on the pulse and get better at both making and executing strategic decisions, then you need to bake into your company culture the right routines, in order to ensure the right daily habits are working towards dealing with both the present, but also the future.

Routines form naturally to save individual, and consequently, group brain power.  Over time, companies will often pick up a collection of toxic habits that often need to be broken, and replaced with new patterns of behaviour to drive optimal business performance. The quickest way to improve your culture is to introduce a series of effective, structured meetings, engaging internal communication and multi-directional communication that gathers both market and employee intelligence to improve the organisation.

Even better, is that just by focusing on one area, whether that be safety or employee engagement, creates a snowball effect, that improves other business results. This includes productivity, talent retention, absenteeism, quality control and sales.

By ensuring your organisation has layers of managers able to convincingly communicate the need to move forward, while having the communication skills and tools to do so, is the key to optimal business performance.  In fact, I would like to say it is the future or organisational success, but I don’t have a time machine to validate that assumption (yet!).



Marie-Claire Ross is the Founder and Chief Corporate Catalyst at Trustologie. She is a workplace sociologist, author, speaker and consultant focused on helping leaders put the right processes in place to accelerate trust during change and growth. She does this through strategic diagnostics, roundtables, workshops, coaching and consulting. Marie-Claire is also the author of the number three ranked book on Amazon, Transform your Safety Communication. She has been interviewed on “Technology Behind Business” for Sky Business News and regularly contributes articles to FM Magazine and LogiSYM on company culture. She is also a Graduate of the Company Director’s Course and is on the SME Committee for the Australian Institute of Company Directors.


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