Reflections On Leading Execution, By Olu Akanmu

Product, service and programmes must be designed from the viewpoint of what the customer wants and internal processes need to be aligned to deliver the product or service, the way the customer wants it. In many instances, organisations design their product and services to fit their internal processes and not the need of the customer…

This essay provides some brief reflections to middle level managers in business and public sector organisations on leading successful execution.

Strategy is a mere statement of intent unless it gets done. Organisations need to get better in translating their strategy intent and conceptual thoughts, usually in various PowerPoint documents to action and results. Leading execution can therefore be reframed as “From PowerPoint to Action” or “From PowerPoint to Results”.

The nexus of increasing te size of organisations or the need for rapid scaling, diversity of geographies and business scope, competitive and fast pace markets, disruptive technologies, active regulations, sophisticated and very aware customers, and convergence of markets and industries create particular execution challenges for organisations in what may look like increasing complexities and interdependencies. In the public service, the need for better inter-ministerial coordination for service delivery, overlapping sectoral boundaries occasioned by new social dynamics and technology, increasing population and service demand despite endemic fiscal constraints, the need for smarter government and smarter service provision, a broadening interphase with wider private sector players for public service provision tend also to create interdependencies that look like increasing complexities. Yet, simplifying these complexities and interdependencies is critical to good execution. Managers must not complexify internal and external processes further but must rather find ways to simplify them for execution, and to achieve operational excellence.

Two key parameters for measuring good execution (assuming that the strategy is right), are fast speed to market and great customer experience. The faster our speed to market and the better our customer experience, the better our execution or vice-versa.

Below are some of the things managers must do to execute brilliantly. The first is “Outside-In Thinking”. Product, service and programmes must be designed from the viewpoint of what the customer wants and internal processes need to be aligned to deliver the product or service, the way the customer wants it. In many instances, organisations design their product and services to fit their internal processes and not the need of the customer, leading to poor customer experience and poor execution.

The second is to “define clear end goals and design programme and processes backwards”. Usually a key reason for poor execution is fuzziness or the lack of clarity about end goals, which leads to poor process design that sub-optimises programme delivery. While in some instances of experimentation instances it may be difficult to define sharply our end goals, nevertheless it would still be imperative to define at least broad qualitative outcomes that such programme must deliver and processes designed backwards from such defined outcomes.

The third is to “define and understand clearly programme dependencies internally and externally”. Seek and get alignment of these dependencies before your begin execution of the programme.

…good execution provides a great feedback loop for organisations to validate and fine-tune their strategy in a dynamic world. If there is good execution and the desired results are not forthcoming, it is clear that strategy needs to be changed, fine-tuned or assumptions revalidated.

Fourthly, managers must “understand their resource constrains and align priorities based on the resource constrain”. Rarely will managers have infinite resources to do all that they conceive. Clear priorities and trade offs must be set within the context of resource constrain, and necessary alignments sought with stakeholders and dependencies to execute flawlessly. An average manager or organisational unit is likely to be unable to execute more than three to four high level priorities at the same time. A long list of priorities mean no real priority in which priorities pull resources from each other usually in different directions, leading to sub-optimal outcomes.

Fifthly, to execute brilliantly, managers must “define measureable goals, milestones, timelines and accountabilities”. Well defined milestones that indicate the programme is on track are critical to execution. Lack of well-defined and measurable milestones create irreversible resource investment in which significant resource is sunk before the organisation realises that the programme is not on track or will not deliver the desired outcome. The organisation would be stuck on a wrong journey with sub-optimal outcomes steering in the face of managers, yet they would find it difficult to re-track the programme due to the irreversibly sunk quantum of investments.

Sixthly, to execute successfully as a manager, you must “know the numbers that matter, the leading and lagging indicators that show your programme is on track or otherwise”. Every programme should have leading indicators or proxies that send early warnings or comfort that the desired periodic outcome of the programme or market actions would be delivered or otherwise. In the consumer goods industry, for example, the trajectory of periodic tracking of brand preference is usually a lead indicator of medium term sales. Even if sales are strong today, it will eventually align with the trajectory of brand preference if it is in decline. Do you know the leading or lagging indicators of your programme’s eventual outcomes? Do you measure them and take proactive measures to correct their trajectories if they are in the negative?

The seventh is to “leverage technology maximally to simplify complexities, eliminate or shorten manual processes and deliver great customer experience”. Eighthly, every manager must learn project management skills for successful execution. Managers today, giving the increasing interdependency of their work and resource constrains, must have project management competency. The days are gone when project management skills of the organisation would reside in a few managers in the project office. As a manager, you are managing one form of project or the other with a defined end goal, cost or finite resource and defined deliverable time. Optimising these variable effectively makes project management a sine-qua non for all managers.

The ninth factor critical for execution is “engagement, leadership and good inter-personal skills”. Managers will never work alone. They work in interdependency with other managers. Leading execution implies that engagement, leadership and interpersonal skills to motivate the right alignment with other managers, to engage them, to align their incentives with programme and service outcomes become critical. Leadership is not necessarily about hierarchy but about programme roles. If you are a product, service or programme manager, you must lead, engage, manage and motivate your dependencies to render what is required of them to deliver on overall programme outcomes.

Lastly, good execution provides a great feedback loop for organisations to validate and fine-tune their strategy in a dynamic world. If there is good execution and the desired results are not forthcoming, it is clear that strategy needs to be changed, fine-tuned or assumptions revalidated. If there is no good execution, the organisation will never know if strategy is right or otherwise and may be stuck for too long on a wrong path.

Olu Akanmu publishes a blog on Strategy and Public Policy.

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