In many firms across the globe, today will see the launch of a new and exciting strategic initiative. It is a blockbuster – an initiative that propels the business into a new league. A technological marvel, it puts customers centre stage, dramatically improves profit per employee, empowers staff, streamlines operations – and removes bureaucratic hurdles that have made it so tough to get stuff done in the past.

Sound familiar?

What is clear is that this new initiative is not trivial. Ambitious timescales have been set – half normal time. Even to the untrained eye, this initiative demands a radical departure from the way things have been done before – it is a “hole-in-one” programme.

How can management organise to meet this challenge?

Beyond doubt, one of the greatest inventions of the last century was “management.” But, it was never designed to deal with the quick-fire changes that we see all around us today. Falling entry barriers, super-efficient competitors, growing customer power and new technologies mean that relentless direction changes are the new “normal.”

Little progress has been made with “management” itself – techniques for organising people, strategic planning, capital budgeting and running major projects have remained mostly unchanged for decades.

Conventional execution doctrine, based on stability and minimal change, repeatedly comes up short. Five year strategic plans gather dust; business plans describe what firms “were” planning to do – and execution plans change weekly.

Even if it is hard to swallow, we know that typical execution dogma has zero chance of controlling an ever-changing competitive landscape. What can be done to change mindsets, avoid glacial management techniques, accelerate performance – and spectacularly boost the chances of success?

There are 5 pillars that will inject pace into this strategic initiative and give it a much needed shot in the arm.

  1. Make sure people really understand the initiative
  2. Construct a realistic but flexible plan
  3. Create a powerful execution structure
  4. Build a well-balanced team
  5. Differentiate between facts and opinions and act on FACTS

Make sure people really understand the initiative

Apart from the strategy authors, the biggest problem is always a lack of understanding in the business about what the initiative means. And if people do not understand, the seeds of cynicism are rapidly sown. They try to read between the lines wasting valuable time – time that is lost forever.

Many top managers intuitively understand these problems – but somehow remain prisoners of business language that is conceptual, sterile – and unremittingly cliched. Words like superiority, advantage, efficiency, value, leadership and “high-performance” are commonplace. In truth, they lack the get-up-and-go ingredient that encourages people to act.

Managers accountable for mission-critical initiatives must get the message across with energy and passion – and in plain English – so that people not only buy the story – but are willing to act on it. Flushing out the “yes but” people, allowing time for discussion, trust building – and even dissent – is a vital part of this process.

But “plain English” is a vague term. Simply put, it means crafting vital information in a way that gives the reader a good chance of understanding it – at first reading – in the same sense that the writer meant it to be understood. This means using English that resonates with people who read it – using good structure and layout to increase understanding.

It is never easy to do “plain talk” – it is the result of hard work and hard thinking. Being precise is vital to success. But if you want to invigorate people, encourage them to make sacrifices and do new stuff, it must be done.

Construct a realistic – but flexible plan

Where change is the rule, there is no genie in the bottle for creating flawless plans. If deadlines are half the “normal” time; requirements are volatile; novel technologies are involved – attempting to plan with precision is insane. Standard techniques will not make the grade.

Speed and innovation are critical – planning is permanently frantic and just-in-time. Plans must remain sensibly fluid and accommodate improvisation. Unfortunately, many businesses try, in vain, to force-fit worn out methods, with disastrous consequences.

High tempo, high change programmes must be driven by novel methods. Break work up into logical cycles – do some – learn from it – and based on what happens in the market, adjust for the next cycle. This line of attack also serves as a catalyst for further change – often beyond the original intent.

The endless predicament for the execution team is managing the tension between top managements need for predictability to run the business – with the reality of widespread change. But they can coexist.

Create a powerful execution structure

The key to accountability is structure. With limited structure, a mob mentality quickly develops scattering the organisations’ energy. The preferred organisational structure has a major influence on timescales and success.

Several organisational options exist – ranging from a simple coordination style through a more formal matrix structure – to dedicated taskforces. For major transformations, either a formal matrix structure or dedicated team approach works best.

Complex initiatives always provide tons of opportunities to drop the baton between functions and to scatter accountability. More often than not, in time-critical ventures, four building blocks are dovetailed – business strategy, design of strategic initiatives, implementation and delivery. Combining these under a single management structure, helps to guarantee the entire lifecycle runs as fast as possible.

But this approach is more disruptive to the status quo and usually has some detractors within the business. Arguments mostly skate about on the surface of irrelevant brilliance – mainly shaped by “turf” issues. Resistance emerges in various forms, ranging from transparent hostility to other more subtle forms of “innocent” and “silent” non-cooperation.

Powerful programme sponsorship, ownership and management are central to success.

Build a well-balanced execution team

When an initiative is labelled strategic – it should be treated like it isstrategic. Getting the right people – and enough of their time – is one of the most crucial tasks. If the right people are not assigned, the initiative will inevitably give way to slow death. If competent people are not assigned, it is better not to start.

If an execution task – in terms of originality, scale, risk and cost – is one of the most challenging ever undertaken in the business, it must be driven by people with a winning state of mind – people who can shake things up. Without experienced execution managers, all the presentations, tools and techniques on the planet will have no effect.

This subject gets limited attention in many companies – yet it is the single most important factor behind failing programmes. Experience matters. Genuine doing skills are fundamental to execution success.

Adequate resources, financial and otherwise, must be deployed within the team. A word of caution – plans based on core execution teams, supported by part-time resource from other functions, always have a hypnotic appeal. But, as a rule, any resource making less than 70% of time available does not make any telling contribution to the initiative.

By implication, these people are too important to “business as usual” to be released – and there will be regular conflicts between the execution Director and the functional Director on time allocation and priorities. These are enormously distracting and completely unnecessary.

Timesharing resource is simply a management fantasy that briefly sidesteps genuine resource allocation issues that should be tackled head-on. Beating about the bush like this is a bad sign – it never works and should be viewed with extreme suspicion.

Differentiate between facts and opinions and act on FACTS

Pragmatism is at the heart of execution – the performance management system is pivotal to control. It asks four basic questions:

  • What has happened?
  • Why has it happened?
  • Is it going to continue?
  • What are we going to do about it?

Weak control and reporting masks detailed implementation difficulties for many months and while individual mistakes may not be shattering, collectively they can be.

When news is bad, the reluctance to face facts is widespread and a major cause of poor execution. People want to look good at the expense of reality. Managers offer “canned” rationalisations for what has happened – normally attributable to events outside their control. Abuse, cynicism and self-interest in performance management are rife in business.

The basic purpose of any control system is to provide feedback, relative to plans. Measurement is not just judging progress – but also to find ways of performing better.

Functional management encourages distorted views of performance and it is easy to lose sight of the big picture – there is little point in achieving departmental targets if the execution task is behind schedule. It takes time for the full picture to develop and, often, the true costs of early failures are hidden. This means that there must be an extraordinary level of intensity in the review process – a willingness to have a frank and open exchange – tough if necessary – and to focus on the truly significant drivers of the task.

Finally, uncertainty cannot be managed in the same way that we control things we know about. Today’s strategic initiatives are chaotic, awkward and change-ridden – but they can be managed if you know how.

Many managers think they “know” what it takes to run a ground-breaking strategic initiative. But knowing what to do is not enough. Knowledge and talk is not a substitute for action.

Loads of people think they know about music – until they try and compose it. Music is only twelve notes – but it takes a lot of talent and craft to transform it from a dreadful noise to something that is delightful to the ear. Executing ground-breaking programmes is a craft without gimmicks. There is no recipe that guarantees success – no shortcuts.

Just as a composer excels in the principles of music composition, managers must master the detailed elements of execution. This is inescapable. Execution is not abstract – it is concrete – and far too rich in complexity to be reduced to superficial, dumbed-down templates and blueprints.

The 5 pillars of execution portrayed here are not mainstream management thinking – but they do boost the prospects of success by a long way. Each pillar is an essential piece of a jigsaw that dynamically promotes fresh and creative approaches to tricky execution problems. It is tough – but it can be done.

So – pause for a moment – reflect on a few words from Robert Frost’s poem, The Road not Taken” – and consider knocking over outmoded management wisdom to get the results you want.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – 
I took the one less travelled by, 
And that has made all the difference.

David Hilliard is the Chief Executive of Mentor. David is a trusted advisor to many companies on strategy execution – and a seasoned IT & Telecoms executive. His direct approach quickly helps clients get to grips with execution challenges. David is an experienced mentor, a top-class educator- and has a fund of real-life experiences that vividly illustrate the “do’s” and “don’ts” of execution. Email David at: [email protected] Website:


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