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This chapter is from the book

The Results: Opinions About Successful Strategy Execution

Table 1.1 shows the results of the surveys. The 12 items are shown, with the respective rank orderings for the Wharton-Gartner Survey and the Wharton Executive Education Survey. (The actual questionnaire, for those interested, appears in the appendix to this book.)

Table 1.1 Obstacles to Strategy Execution

Obstacles

Wharton-Gartner Survey (n = 243)

Rankings Wharton-Executive Education Survey (n = 200)

Either Survey Top 5 Rankings

1. Inability to manage change effectively or to overcome internal resistance to change

1

 1

3

2. Trying to execute a strategy that conflicts with the existing power structure

 2

 5

3

3. Poor or inadequate information sharing between individuals or business units responsible for strategy execution

 2

 4

3

4. Unclear communication of responsibility and/or accountability for execution decisions or actions

 4

 5

3

5. Poor or vague strategy

 5

 2

3

6. Lack of feelings of "ownership" of a strategy or execution plans among key employees

 5

 8

3

7. Not having guidelines or a model to guide strategy- execution efforts

 7

 2

3

8. Lack of understanding of the role of organizational structure and design in the execution process

 9

 5

3

9. Inability to generate "buy-in" or agreement on critical execution steps or actions

 7

10

10. Lack of incentives or inappropriate incentives to support execution objectives

9

8

 

11. Insufficient financial resources to execute the strategy

11

12

 

12. Lack of upper-management support of strategy execution

12

11

 


It is obvious that there is strong agreement on some of the items. The importance of managing change well, including cultural change, is first on both surveys. Inability to manage change effectively clearly is seen as injurious to strategy-execution efforts. Although culture was not mentioned explicitly in the item, the open-ended responses and panel discussions placed culture at the core of many change-related problems. To many of the respondents, "change" and" "culture change" were synonymous.

Trying to execute a strategy that conflicts with the prevailing power structure clearly is doomed to failure, according to the managers surveyed. Confronting those with influence at different organizational levels who disagree with an execution plan surely will have unhappy results in most cases.

Poor sharing of information or poor knowledge transfer and unclear responsibility and accountability also can doom strategy-execution attempts. These two items suggest that attempts at coordination or integration across organizational units can suffer if unclear responsibilities and poor sharing of vital information needed for execution is the rule. Again, this makes sense because complex strategies often demand cooperation and effective coordination and information sharing. Not achieving the requisite knowledge transfer and integration certainly cannot help the execution of these strategies.

There is also agreement on the unimportance of some of the items. Both survey groups clearly agreed that a lack of upper-management support and insufficient financial resources were not major problems for strategy execution in their organizations. These results were extremely surprising, so I pursued them further.

Presenting these results to managers in the panel discussions helped clarify the findings. Basically, the story is that top-management support and adequate financial resources are absolutely critical, but that support is primarily manifested during a planning stage, when deciding on execution plans and methods. Commitment to plans of actions and commitment of resources occur as part of planning, so they are "givens," predetermined inputs to the execution process. Execution plans and activities already have the blessing and approval of top management, and commitment of the requisite resources has already been made. Occasionally, top management may renege on its support during execution, but managers said that this was the exception, not the rule.

This explains, then, why the items dealing with financial support and top management buy-in were rated as only minor execution problems, not serious obstacles. The issues related to support and commitment had already been confronted and resolved, according to the managers interviewed. They definitely are saying, however, that had the blessing of top management not been attained, execution success would be far less probable, if not impossible, to achieve. Given that buy-in and financial support were a reality and in place, the focus could turn to other execution tasks and activities.

It is important to note, too, that top management and financial support are seen by managers as different issues than the power issue previously reported as significant for execution. Power has a broader and more pervasive influence than financial allocations, although there clearly is some relationship. Even after the approval of an execution project and the attendant budget allocations, power and social influence come into play and can affect execution. Managers were adamant in their opinion that, while power certainly includes elements of hierarchy and budgeting, power differences are deeper, more complex, and permeate the entire organization, regardless of hierarchical level.

There are some differences between managers in the two surveys on a few of the items. Having a "poor or vague strategy," for example, was ranked as the second biggest execution obstacle by the Wharton Executive Education group, but it was ranked fifth by the Wharton-Gartner managers. "Not having a model or guidelines to guide strategy execution efforts" was ranked as the second biggest obstacle by the Executive Education group but was seventh in the Wharton-Gartner Survey. There were also small perceived differences on the importance of organizational structure or design in the execution process.

Why the differences? It may be due in part to the makeup of the samples in the two surveys. The Wharton-Gartner Survey tapped the opinions of managers, some of whom, we can infer, were successful in execution and some of whom weren't. Surely, some of the individuals sampled were successful in their implementation efforts, meaning they weren't having problems.

In contrast, many of the managers in the Executive Education Survey attended the Wharton program because they were having actual execution problems. They came to the program to help solve them and to overcome real implementation obstacles. Their focus was clearly on righting or avoiding execution mistakes. They could see problems, say, with organizational structure or not having a model to guide execution efforts, whereas managers in the Wharton-Gartner Survey may have already overcome those problems and, hence, ranked them lower in importance. Whatever the reason, there were some differences between the two groups.

Poor Execution Outcomes

There was strong agreement between the research groups on the impact of the execution problems on performance results. In addition to "not achieving desired execution outcomes or objectives," managers in the surveys ranked a few additional results of poor execution methods as being highly problematical. These include the following:

  • Employees don't understand how their jobs contribute to important execution outcomes.

  • Time and money are wasted because of inefficiency or bureaucracy in the execution process.

  • Execution decisions take too long to make.

  • The company reacts slowly or inappropriately to competitive pressures.

These are not trivial issues. Execution problems can cost the organization dearly. Time and money are wasted, and a company can face serious competitive setbacks because of an inability to respond to market or customer demands. Execution problems must be addressed, but which ones and in what order?

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