It’s 4:00 am, and the vast plains of Ngong, Kenya, are filled with small groups of runners practicing their daily marathon routines. These young men and women have one aspiration: to be the next winner of a local or international marathon, a competitive sport where a fraction of a second separates the winner from other participants.
Observing these early morning runs, it becomes clear that the marathon is actually won on the practice field, way ahead of the upcoming competition. The only difference between the marathon and the practice run is the location and the number of spectators. The carefully planned and practiced performance remains unchanged.
In business, there’s a strategy and the execution of that strategy. We can compare the strategy with the intent and decision to participate in a competition and the execution with the day of the actual marathon. What separates the fortunate from the failed is execution readiness – those invisible months or even years of preparation, when no one is watching.
Naturally, it’s vital to focus on execution, but it will only succeed when the strategy is developed in line with required organizational capabilities. Organizations must carry out a readiness assessment in order to establish where the business is and what is still required. This predictability of winning is achieved through strategy execution readiness (SER), the organization’s ability to determine and address what it will take to achieve its objectives (strategy) and adjust the requirements as it continues to execute, in the most efficient way possible.
Most leaders cite sustained value creation as the most critical business objective; execution readiness is the missing link, as it can predict execution success with greater certainty. How do individuals, teams and organizations put readiness into the center of what they do? How can we inject readiness into business systems and processes? How can we incorporate it into a standard workday? This article outlines what it takes for organizations, teams and individuals to become continuously ready for never-ending execution.
1. Mind the Strategy and Execution Gap.
Even if your business has a clear strategy, it’s critical to pause to understand what’s required versus what’s available. This leader-led exercise provides a crucial window to where the organization is headed before undertaking any change effort to take a new strategic direction or introduce new products and services.
Once the leaders have carried out this exercise and are comfortable with what’s achievable according to the level of readiness, they can proceed with execution efforts. Execution readiness is not an event but, rather, a process embedded into how the business is run. It is a critical element in the strategy-readiness-execution loop.
We can best observe the critical importance of SER in the medical field. Before any surgery, doctors and their teams articulate their objectives, in consultation with the patient. Before they execute their plan, they go through a readiness routine: a checklist. In his 2009 bestseller “The Checklist Manifesto,” author and surgeon Atul Gawande argues that we can be more effective using the simplest of methods: the checklist. He shares how checklists could bring about striking improvements in a variety of fields, from medicine to disaster recovery and everything in between. The checklist is, in essence, an execution readiness toolkit.
2. View Capabilities as Capital Requirements.
Whether it’s in training, new tools or talent acquisition, successful organizations invest continuously to ensure their capabilities are at their peak. They look at these capabilities in much the same way they look at capital requirements. L’Oréal, for example, created a leadership development program that equipped its top 1,000 leaders with the knowledge, mindset and skills required for the company to thrive in the digital age and ensure readiness ahead of planned execution targets.
We can observe similar examples of large-scale capability investments at the financial institutions acquiring or partnering with fintech companies to accelerate their readiness and meet their digital agenda. Whether developed in house or outsourced, having the required capabilities to meet your strategic goals is non-negotiable – it is, for the most part, what determines execution success.
3. Adopt a Learning Mindset.
In these VUCA times, what made you ready in the past might not work in the future. A learning mindset, therefore, plays a significant role in ensuring the organization, and its people, are always ready to adapt. Leaders should assume the role of chief knowledge curators to drive this mindset shift.
On any given day, we have hundreds of valuable ideas we’d like to share. Organizations can deploy simple methods to mine, curate and distribute them throughout the organization to drive the overall corporate mission. The key is to ensure this process is an authentic experience that is encouraged throughout the company, which begins with the CEO.
How does readiness and continuous learning impact innovation? Bob Rosenfeld, founder and CEO of Idea Connection Systems Inc., believes that leaders must look beyond the techniques (strategy) and results of innovation (execution) to the principles of sustained innovation. He writes, “The most important aspects of innovation are not readily apparent. To become successful, the invisible must be made visible.” This mindset can hardwire readiness into the company’s DNA.
Making execution readiness a visible constant is, perhaps, the biggest challenge a company could face. It’s easy to say, “We’ve been here before, and our top people have all the required key capabilities. We are leading anyway, so let’s continue with business as usual.” Sustaining a maturity mindset through execution readiness is not easy, especially when you are successful at what you do.
4. Institutionalize the Culture of Execution Readiness.
The late management consultant and writer Peter Drucker is famous for saying, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Edgar Schein, the “grandfather” of the role of culture in organizations, talks about an organization’s cultural DNA, which defines what is essential in an organization and drives human behavior. For organizations to achieve sustained value, readiness needs to form part of their culture. Making execution readiness part of the culture requires three critical elements:
First, it needs to form part of the execution scoreboard. In other words, when executives report on their targets, they should also report on the level of readiness. In fact, they should report on readiness before reporting on targets, as there should be a direct correlation between readiness and execution.
Second, everyone in the organization needs to be educated on the strategy-readiness-execution loop. All staff members need to grasp the role readiness plays in the achievement of business goals, and the company should capture and update the required information as frequently as possible.
Finally, execution readiness needs to form part of the organization’s competencies, and the company should assess leaders across all ranks based on how they ensure their team members’ readiness. The organization should assess and report on other key (execution readiness) elements, as well.
In these competitive, complex and uncertain times, business leaders must upgrade their strategy. Incorporating execution readiness into that strategy will separate the companies that succeed from the companies that fail the execution race. It’s 2019; we have tremendous knowledge, frameworks and research, yet execution continues to remain the biggest challenge organizations face.
Make execution readiness part of your company’s culture by establishing a set of values and leadership behaviors. For it to stick, help leaders set an example as chief knowledge curators, and start cultivating a learning mindset throughout the organization.