Why focus at all?
When we started our journey of developing strategy execution software to complement our consulting, we interviewed as many senior executives as we could get access to or had worked with during our previous business transformation project work. We asked them their view on the main challenges of strategy execution in organisations that had worked in.
One executive we spoke to, was an ex-CEO of a multi-national FTSE 100 insurance business with an amazing track record of both personal and professional achievement.
He said to us, "it's very straightforward; strategy execution requires focus, Focus, FOCUS on ruthless execution".
After digging deeper, he meant that one's ability to achieve our objectives is determined by our ability to marshal available resources on the things that are most important. For most organisations, this could be perhaps summarised as:
- Be clear about what you're trying to achieve and by when (clarity of objectives).
- Focus your key resources on activities that add the most value.
- Remove low-value, distracting activities ruthlessly.
- Ensure all activities measurably contribute to the desired outcomes and objectives.
These simple statements are easy to write but much harder to do in practice, particularly in large complex organisations where the landscape is frequently changing, politics are at play and individual stakeholder viewpoints need to be frequently reconciled.
However, the organisations and individuals that can get this right, are the ones that achieve many times more than others and that somehow, in the face of adversity, manage to achieve the impossible.
Hard work, dedication, and discipline are critical success factors too. Elon Musk's now famous 100-hour working weeks and unnerving ability to continue in the face of difficulty are hallmarks of success, but doing the right things and only the right things are critical. There's little point in working 100-hour weeks on activities that add no value.
It's no wonder, in a recent survey of 400 CEOs, Donald Sull of MIT Sloan School cited Strategy Execution as the number one problem facing Fortune 750 businesses.
Why is focusing important yet difficult?
Research from Harvard Business School, MIT Sloan, and others indicate that many strategic projects fail because staff get caught up in the day job, and fail to understand their role in the delivery of the strategy. When there's too much going on, staff revert to the day job or what they're most familiar with and lost focus on what's important and why.
Our own observations from working with many organisations, are that there is so much complexity and such a large, complex workload for most, that firstly identifying only the important activities is a huge challenge but having the strength to stop the unimportant activities is even harder.
What are the benefits and outcomes of focusing?
Being able to focus clearly on the things that are important and focus your key resources on them, brings a multitude of benefits not limited to:
- Productivity and efficiency improvements.
- These beings financial reward (assuming the strategy is focused on financial outcomes)
- Improved staff motivation and morale
- Improved staff engagement.
- Ability to demonstrate effectiveness.
- Ability to explain your actions to regulators, peers, and leadership.
- Being able to measurably trace success and data-driven decisions
Perhaps most importantly, it enables what some call alignment between the delivery portfolio and objectives. This means all activities, staff, and suppliers are focused solely on the delivery of objectives. There is little or no wasted effort, pet projects, or activities that cannot be linked to the desired organisational outcomes.
This leads to the question of how do you find the wasted effort and enable staff to focus on the right things?
How is finding waste and focussing activity traditionally done?
In our experience, traditionally this level of focus is very difficult to achieve, even for the strongest leaders. One of the biggest challenges is identifying which activities add value, by how much and which are not contributing. Stopping the wrong projects is fraught with political difficulty, particularly without the ability to objectively measure their contribution to strategic objectives.
Non-contributing activities are bad news for two main reasons. Firstly, the expended cost and time spent. The second, arguably more damaging, is the impact on key resources who spend their time on activities that add little value. The best staff need to work on the most important projects. Not a drop of wasted effort should be spilt.
How can software help?
Given this challenge, how can software play a role in helping organisations cut through this complexity and focus on what's important and take incremental steps toward the outcomes?
Strategy execution software is a newly emerging field of software, which promises to help organisations align their work on what's important and ensure that the benefits of projects and programmes are measurably linked to the objectives and their associated key performance indicators. The very best products help each stakeholder involved in the change to focus on their aspect of delivery. This means any wasted effort is minimised, and each staff member knows what they are delivering and how it fits with the big picture.
The latest software enables the execution planning to be set out clearly and for each staff member to manage delivery by exception when the execution starts to deviate from the desired path. Of course, the very best, most mature organisations can't always plan a strategy completely in advance, so being able to flex and model the strategy dynamically, is critical within the software.
Being able to model change and the impact on objectives on the organisation before making large, risky investments is hugely powerful and helps discussion and agreement between leaders.
As the category of strategy execution software becomes mainstream for high-performing organisations, we hope leaders can take advantage of this capability to really focus on their objectives and provide insight into where effort is wasted.
Refining the ability to focus strategically has huge top and bottom-line advantages that should transform the fortunes of leadership teams and the organisations they work in.
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