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Additional Challenges and Obstacles to Successful Execution

The issues previously noted are serious, potentially impeding execution. Yet there are still other challenges and obstacles to the successful implementation of strategy. These need to be identified and confronted if execution is to succeed.

To find out what problems managers routinely encounter in the execution of strategy, I developed two research projects to provide some answers. My goal was to learn about execution from those most qualified to give me the scoop—managers actually dealing with strategy execution. I could have relied solely on my own consulting experiences. I felt, however, that a more widespread approach—surveys directed toward many practicing managers—would yield additional positive results and useful insights into execution issues.

Wharton-Gartner Survey

This was a joint project involving the Gartner Group, Inc., a well-known research organization, and me, a Wharton professor. This is a relatively recent project, with data collection and analysis in 2003.

The purpose of the research, from the Gartner introduction, was as follows:

"To gain a clear understanding of challenges faced by managers as they make decisions and take actions to execute their company's strategy to gain competitive advantage."

The research instrument was a short online survey sent to 1,000 individuals on the Gartner E-Panel database. The targeted sample comprised managers who reported that they were involved in strategy formulation and execution. Complete usable responses were received from a sample of 243 individuals, a return rate that is more than sufficient for this type of research. In addition, the survey collected responses to open-ended questions to provide additional data, including explanations of items covered in the survey instrument.

There were 12 items on the survey dealing with obstacles to the strategy-execution process. They focused on conditions that affect execution and were originally developed in conjunction with a Wharton Executive Development Program on strategy implementation. Let's briefly consider this program and the survey it generated, and then we'll look at the items involved.

Wharton Executive Education Survey

I have been running an executive program on strategy implementation at Wharton a number of times a year for about 20 years. I have met hundreds of managers with responsibility for strategy execution, many of whom confronted major hurdles in their attempts to execute strategy successfully. As part of the formal program, managers brought their real-world problems with them. Time was allocated to air out the problems and focus on their solution in the course of the program.

Based on these presentations and my discussions with managers, I developed a list of execution hurdles or challenges to the execution process. I discussed this list with managers, asking them to rank the problems or obstacles in order of importance. Over time, items were modified, added to, or deleted from the list until I settled on 12 items that made sense and had "face" validity. These items, managers felt, clearly had a relationship to strategy execution.

Using the 12 items to gather opinions over a large number of executive education programs provided me with responses from a sample of 200 managers. They provided a ranking of the items' impact on strategy execution. Open-ended responses to questions about execution issues, problems, and opportunities were also collected over time, providing additional valuable data. Coupled with the data collected in the Wharton-Gartner Survey using the same 12 items, I had complete responses from more than 400 managers involved in strategy execution who told me about their execution problems and their solutions to them.

Panel Discussions

In subsequent Wharton executive programs after the data collection, I held informal panel discussions to collect additional insights into what the data were actually saying. I asked managers why, in their opinion, people responded the way they did. "What are the surveys telling us about execution problems or issues?" was the predominant question.

These discussions forced managers to read between the lines and interpret the formal data. They also enabled me to probe into what could be done to overcome the obstacles and achieve successful execution outcomes. Insights were collected, then, not only on the sources of execution problems but their solutions as well.

The surveys and follow-up discussions provided data right from "the horse's mouth." These were not idiosyncratic data, the opinions or observations of a few managers or CEOs who, against all odds, "did it their way." The number of managers providing answers, coupled with an emphasis on real problems and solutions, added a strong sense of relevance to the opinions gathered about strategy execution.

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