Strategy execution: Aligning your organisation to your council plan
by Zoe Pappas & Jess Cossens
It takes more than a well thought out and beautifully crafted council plan to affect real change. In truth, crafting a brilliant strategy is just the first step. The next challenge is delivering on the strategy. At Right Lane Consulting, in our experience helping organisations with strategy development and execution, we have found that those that adhere to six critical steps (Frame, Align, Cascade, Task, Oversee and Review) can avoid the common strategy execution pitfalls.
The great ‘bake-off’
It takes more than just a great council planning session to affect real change in your council, whether that be revitalising the feel of your municipality, enhancing your service delivery model or delivering operational cost savings. In truth, crafting a brilliant council plan is just the first step. The next challenge is delivering on that plan.
An analogy we use likens delivery of a brilliant council plan to entering a baking competition. The first, vital step is to decide what it is you are going to bake. Since the competition is fierce, many entrants enlist expert help to analyse the judges’ preferences, find out what the other contenders are baking, and design a recipe that is worthy of first place.
However, crafting a world class recipe is a far cry from winning the contest. As most who have some experience baking will attest, few cakes come out of the oven looking like the picture in the recipe book. The same is true in business.
The gap between developing and executing your plan
The academic and popular business literature is replete with perspectives on the challenges associated with strategy execution: ‘Strategy is easy; execution is hard’ (Mizrahi, 2016), ‘Why strategy execution unravels and what to do about it?’ (Sull et al, 2015), ‘Is execution where good strategies go to die?’ (Bonchek, 2017). Reputedly, as many as 67 per cent of well-formulated strategies fail due to poor execution (Carucci, 2017).
But why is execution so difficult? Is it because some council executives don’t know what to do? That may be part of it, although if you put any group of council executives in a room for an hour and brainstormed council plan execution success factors, the chances are they would come up with a pretty good list. This is not to diminish it per se, but rather to recognise that there must be other factors at play.
To better understand why some councils succeed where others fall short, we’ve reflected on the hundreds of organisations (councils, other non-profits and commercial businesses) we’ve seen take brilliant strategies to market and identified the common elements which were present, or missing, in their strategic execution.
Based upon these learnings we have developed a 6-step recipe for successful strategy execution. We call this recipe the Execution Factor or (a little self-consciously) the Ex-FACTOR. Refer exhibit 1.
Frame your plan
Your council plan is a document that needs to speak to a broad range of stakeholders: your councillors, your community, and your council employees. Framing the plan is all about telling the story in a compelling and comprehensive manner. In reviewing your plan, readers should be able to quickly and easily grasp what you’re striving for, how you plan to achieve it and why it matters.
Align your executive team
In order to effectively execute your plan, you need your executive team all ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’. Misalignment of goals and incentives can seriously undermine your efforts and breed cultural challenges within your organisation. Aligning your executive team is about ensuring they all understand and buy into the shared council goals and visibly lead your organisation to deliver on that strategy.
Cascade the plan
One criticism council employees may have of the council plan is that it feels so far removed from their day to day work; it looks pretty and tells a nice story to the public, but it doesn’t really impact how they spend their time. However, a well cascaded plan should imprint itself through all levels of the organisation: in business-unit plans, in budgets and resource allocation, and in team discussions. Each employee should understand the strategic intent of the plan as well as how they personally contribute to its success.
Task your teams
Enabling a council plan to be successfully delivered requires well set-up teams. That means allocating sufficient resources with the right capabilities to get things done. It means clarifying decision rights and processes so decisions can be made in a timely and effective manner. And it means providing the necessary executive support as these projects progress.
Strategic oversight is important to monitor how your plan is being executed, and to enable you to step in when the unexpected occurs. Good strategic oversight means establishing regular monitoring and review processes as well as encouraging proactive discussions where roadblocks might hinder progress.
While the oversee step above is all about monitoring execution as it takes place, reviewing outcomes is about stepping back to see the big picture impact. Did our initiatives have the impact we thought they would have? Has any new information come to light that may require us to rethink our approach? Regularly reviewing the outcomes of our plan will help councils recognise what’s working for us and what’s not.
In our experience, organisations that adhere to the 6 Ex-FACTOR steps rarely go too far wrong. Or, to return to our analogy, they successfully bake a cake. But what separates the many organisations who can ‘bake cake’ from the contest winners, those who really ‘knock strategy execution out of the park’? In other words, what is the ‘Ex’ in ‘Ex-FACTOR’?
The ‘Ex’ in Ex-FACTOR’
To answer this question, we observe that different bakers following the same recipe will typically not produce identical cakes. It is by bringing their own artistry to bear that experienced bakers can produce outstanding results. Perhaps the same is true in business: executives (mostly) know what to do (follow the FACTOR steps), but it is those who add their own flair to strategy execution that outshine the rest.
Just as different bakers have different styles, we’ve seen organisations take many and varied approaches to strategy execution; our experience suggests that there is no single ‘correct’ approach. However, we have found that the organisations that excel at strategy execution are those which go beyond the basic recipe.
For some councils the ‘Ex’ may come from:
- the CEO relentlessly engaging the executive team, in other words, being ‘like a dog with a bone’ when it comes to the council plan
- crafting compelling and emotive messages to your staff, or from engaging staff at all levels of the organisation in strategy execution via ‘vertical-slice’ project teams
- reorganising project teams to deliver cross-council collaboration and break down silos between service units.
The question therefore becomes, ‘what is your council’s Ex-FACTOR?’. Or, put differently, how will you ensure your council is among the minority that truly excel at executing on their council plan?
We’d like to challenge you to reflect on the elements of our Ex-FACTOR execution recipe. How will your council put the ‘Ex’ in ‘Ex-FACTOR’?
Bonchek, M. (2017, November). Is Execution Where Good Strategies Go to Die? Harvard Business Review.
Carucci, R. (2017, November). Executives Fail to Execute Strategy Because They’re Too Internally Focused. Harvard Business Review.
Mizrahi, A. (2016). Strategy is easy. Execution is hard. These 5 steps will improve your results. https://medium.com/@AviMizrahi_TO/strategy-is-easy-execution-is-hard-these-5-steps-will-improve-your-results-39d2a3ae8e72
Right Lane Consulting. (2019, December). Strategy Execution: The great ‘business bake-off’. Right Lane Review.
Sull, D., Homkes, R., & Sull, C. (2015, March). Why Strategy Execution Unravels—and What to Do About It. Harvard Business Review.
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We hope the ideas presented here have given you something new to think about. We would love the opportunity to discuss them with you in more detail. Get in touch today.