Why Business Execution Fails (and what to do about it)


Failure to execute strategy is one of the main reasons businesses fail. We know what we need to do but often fail to put it into action. Strategy is important but delivering results matters more. After all, customers purchase our products, not our planning.

Business leaders are acutely aware of this harsh reality. According to a recent international survey of corporate executives, 65% said that "being able to execute…is critical for their success." Yet only 20% of them said achieving this level of performance is possible.

What accounts for this failure? Some reasons include - redundant processes, conflicting priorities and activities, cultural resistance, internal power struggles, lack of accountability, etc. Below, I discuss three that are especially ubiquitous and offer some ways to move beyond them.

Lack of a Defined Execution Plan. Most organizations have well-defined decision-making processes, but lack a disciplined approach to execution. Mid-level managers are responsible for "getting things done," yet few are adequately trained to do so. Many are left to learn this art of execution on the job, through trial and error. Not exactly the best way to drive strategy. Companies can avoid this scenario by teaching managers the behaviors and skills vital for strategic success.

Strategy is Not Linked to Execution. In many organizations, planning and execution are discrete functions - managers plan, workers execute. No overlap. The truth is, strategy and execution are reciprocal, interrelated processes.

According to business author, Lawrence Hrebiniak, "successful strategic outcomes [occur] when those responsible for execution are also part of the planning process." Line employees and managers are especially well-positioned to identify execution-related challenges and suggest possible solutions. Tapping into this well of expertise early on helps prevent front-end mistakes and address new challenges.

A Lack of Strategic Leadership. Planning makes us feel powerful. After all, it is an elite activity that only a few people get to do. Worrying about execution is best left to those who do it, so the thinking goes. Nothing is further from the truth. Execution is a responsibility of those who lead and those who follow. It's all about ownership.

As a paramedic in Southern California, I served under Fire Captain David Hawthorne (name is changed). Equivalent to middle managers, captains are responsible for designing on-scene strategy by determining how a fire will be fought and ensuring firefighters have the resources needed to do their job. However, they don't have the luxury of letting others worry about execution. When lives and property are at stake, getting the job done is their primary concern.

Hawthorne exemplified this level of commitment - a courageous and compassionate leader who obsessed over execution. He was typically the first person through the door of a burning building and often the last one out. He embraced the scared and suffering, young and old.

Through his actions, Dave taught us how to be public servants. He modeled the behavior expected, and never settled for second best. He owned his strategy. As a result, those who worked for him did as well.

In your business, do you "own" your strategy? Do you model it for others? If not, you may be standing in the way of your company's success.

© 2014 Frank Niles