How to Fix Execution Problems

Most adults who live and work in Jamaica are used to
watching everyday transactions like hawks. Every invoice, payment or message
must be tracked carefully due to the mistakes companies make in even simple

A $300 bill becomes one for $3000. An email with a
straightforward request gets lost. A phone rings without an answer. Most
Jamaican organizations have an issue dealing with their own recurring errors.

Compare this to the environment surrounding our world-class
athletes. In post-race interviews, they often contrast their planned versus
actual execution. They continually examine their performance to remove faults
in ways our companies don’t.

But there’s a bigger problem afoot. In the public sphere,
while we laud the construction of grand highways, we fail to fix ordinary
potholes. Ribbons are cut to launch projects to widen roads, but within days
the site looks like a war-zone, as if project management were never invented.

The challenge is that we focus on the initial vision and
the  excitement around it, but when it wears off, a series of recurring
mistakes become par for the course.

Is your company facing a similar test? Do you put a lot of
effort into launching new initiatives but fail to solve repeated mistakes?

If you are in doubt as to the answer, ask employees. They
are the ones who complain about these maddening execution problems. But what
drives them nuts is not the issue itself, but the manager who chases symptoms
rather than causes.

The plain truth is that complex issues require people to
cross functional or hierarchical boundaries. This means they must put
themselves at risk, but it’s far easier to fire-fight and complain than to be

This managerial cowardice allows execution problems to

If this phenomenon sounds familiar, how can you transform
the situation?

1. Re-Define Execution

The problem with a common term like execution is everyone
thinks they know what it means and therefore uses it loosely. After a while, it
loses whatever meaning it ever had.

Research shows that sometimes issues recur when companies
don’t have a rich enough language to describe them. In other words, they can’t
even talk about the challenge in a fruitful way.

To bring an over-used concept to life, you’ll need to
redefine it afresh so it meets the unique needs of your environment.

For example, let’s imagine you coin a phrase: “flawless
execution.” It could equate to “completing a function or process such that
there are no mistakes which create further problems.”

With that in mind, “flawless execution” can be adapted as a
new universal standard that everyone is taught to use. It should become part of
the performance management system as well.

2. Own Execution

Many companies are happy to employee workers who simply take
orders without taking any additional initiative. In other words, the manager’s
job is to think and direct, while those underneath them should merely follow.

In modern organizations, this common approach leads to

While passive employees may be able to solve simple
problems, challenges which require some thinking and coordination with others
demand more. In other words, staff must have the power to take the initiative
without the manager being involved.

Managers who try to micro-manage end up becoming
overwhelmed. So do those who try to do all the thinking.

The solution is for  managers to transform all the ways
in which they undermine  employee initiative. The best leaders are
vigilant: they actively seek feedback on their approach to managing others to
discover where they are preventing staff from problem-solving. They get
themselves out of the way, and ask employees to let them know when they become
controlling or otherwise offensive.

But is this enough?

3. Teaching Problem-Solving Skills

Unfortunately, even motivated employees find that solving
tricky process problems isn’t easy. Not only are excellent communication skills
required, but a capacity for critical thinking and data analysis are a must.

Most employees are weak in these areas and lack training. A
smart leader will develop these competences in a systematic fashion, knowing
that as they do so, they help staff solve recurring execution problems on their

In other words, it’s the only way to implement a new ideal
like “flawless execution”.

Given the fact that our athletes and coaches use these
techniques every day to achieve world class standards, it makes sense for our
organizations to try to do the same. Even though it’s more difficult to do so
in groups of people, the rewards are more far-reaching.

The Difference Between Having a Strategy vs. Being Strategic

Why is it that strategic plans often languish on the shelf? Some would say it’s a matter of lazy executives but experience shows that it has more to do with creating the right context from the start.

A client I work with has an idea: “let’s put up our own website.” At first blush, it makes sense. Every organisation has one. It’s an easy, inexpensive way to let the world know you exist.

However, a brief survey of websites of similar organisations reveals an inconvenient truth: they are all embarrassingly stale.  The layouts look tired. Not a single site is current, or has been updated in ages. Whoever had the original vision has long gone, leaving behind an obsolete artefact.

But it’s likely that when the idea was first pursued, people were excited. They invested personal energy in the project and when it was done, felt satisfied that their vision had come to life.

Unfortunately, they also made a deadly mistake. In their minds, the purpose of the activity was to produce an object (a website) versus to launch a process (a way to keep staff in touch with the public.) In other words, the context they created for the project was limited.

This particular error happens every day. Imagine the typical family. The kids want to adopt a dog, but their parents refuse. The fact is, the older, wiser heads know that owning a pet is more than possessing an animal object. It also means engaging in a process of feeding, exercising and cleaning that takes time and money. They understand that this job is likely to fall into their laps when their children lose interest.

As adults, they see the real cost.

This also happens in strategic planning retreats when companies try to compress the activity into a single day. It’s possible to create a report in this time-frame if the team focuses solely on producing unlimited visions of the future. They walk away feeling inspired, as if they have just adopted a dog or launched a website.

However, the typical second day is usually focused on adding in real-life constraints – the true cost. Once they are included in the plan, tradeoffs must be considered which lead to the team making difficult decisions. Among them is a choice to kill certain initiatives.

The sad reality? There just isn’t enough time, manpower, money or energy to accomplish all the goals set on day one. That initial mood of boundless creativity must be balanced.

Apart from spending two days on this activity, what else is required to be strategic versus just producing a plan?

  1. A Context of “Being Strategic”
    Paradoxically, the main output of each planning exercise may not be the plan. Perhaps, it’s better understood as the start of a process which engages everyone.

In this process, a new paradigm is introduced which reshapes everyday work. Now, instead of simply doing their job, an employee is doing so for a greater purpose which inspires them.

This means that the plan should be changed as often as necessary in order to play its role as a guide for daily actions. These updates keep it fresh and relevant.

Some companies unwittingly rob employees of learning how to “be strategic.” First, they  hire outsiders to write their strategy. When the final document (the object) is handed over, the company finds itself unable to execute because no-one possesses the requisite way of being to be successful. It disappeared out the door with the consultants.

  1. Make Concrete Commitments
    In prior columns I accused executives of failing to treat their time with the same level of rigour as they do their budgets. Consequently, their strategic plans are unrealistic and are treated as if they can all drop their overfull schedules at a moment’s notice.

One antidote is to book the same time in each executive’s calendar for implementation: e.g. Monday morning from 9-12 am. Doing so means cancelling or delegating existing commitments. It’s a way to ensure that the new projects and processes in the plan have a chance of survival in the real, post-retreat world.

  1. Make Behaviour and Process Changes
    Pay attention to those strategic initiatives which are as painful to implement as the challenge of learning to write cursive with your non-dominant hand. At both the individual and corporate levels, old habits and processes will assert themselves, resisting the planned changes.

Instead, put in place new systems for performance management, rewards, recognition, training and automation. Hardwire these improvements to reduce the possibility of failure.

Part of being strategic is acknowledging all these obstacles and finding ways to work around them. Admittedly, they are harder than simply producing a document but they will ensure that your plan is realistic and provide a unique pathway to future success.