Execute crisply with sharp tools

What is the use of having a strategy when you do not have the tools to execute it? Problem is: You can rarely buy those tools. You can not buy executional strength- you need to have build executional excellence over time. How?

What is your strategy?

First a reality check: According to leading strategist Richard P. Rumelt most companies do not have a strategy, some might have intentions, at best.
Think of your own company: Do you know its strategy or do you just guess? Is it really a strategy or just stated intentions: “We want to be within the top X of…”, “We will grow consistently”, “We are proud to deliver outstanding customer service” or similar. Do you know why this strategy is chosen? Do you know how – by which actions – it is brought into execution? Do you know exactly what results are meant to be achieved and when?

A strategy can not be executed if not defined, nor if it is not communicated. Most employees and manager suppose that there most be a master plan somewhere in higher management and lower echelons just do not know it. They are – according to Rumelts studies and my experience – wrong. A well formulated, shared strategy – even if not communicated is a very rare thing.

This is quite unsettling. Organizations are drifting in time through the ocean of daily work, without a clear purpose and direction. But they are earning money and provide livelihoods. And that is not a achievement to be belittled.

Managers blues & Workers limbo

One common complaint often heard by managers is: “Who should do it? We do not have the kind of people around here to do things like that. If only we could have more people like person X, we could achieve so much more.”

On the employee side, not a few are feeling that work do not bring out the best of them. How many of your co-workers seem to go to work because they seem to be inherently motivated by their jobs, the tasks they are accomplishing or the social team spirit? Most people are there to earn money in a sometimes engaged, sometimes demotivated, most of the time neither engaged or demotivated way. Employees are drifting – just as a company without a strategy that is actually executed does.

Execute with sharp tools

Strategy is the application of strength versus weakness. The way that this strength is applied is by people grouped in organizations, acting in unison towards a single purpose. Organizations are the prime tools to execute. Every action of a company is either improved or attritioned by a good organization or by a bad organization. The organization is the tool . this tool can either be sharp or blunt.

Heinz Guderian, who had a major influence on german army operations before during and after the second world war, described his job as Inspector General of the Armoured Troops: “Provide the german army with the sharp tools of their trade“.  This encompassed every aspect: Organisation, Training, Processes, Logistics, Material.

This way of thinking was prominent in the german general staff. Erwin Rommel has once been questioned about his seemingly overly risky strategies and replied “I am seeking to create complex situations willingly – in the clear conscience to have the means available to use that complexity to my advantage“.

Both strategists, Guderian and Rommel, were quite aware that any strategy needs to have the sharp tools to implement them and even more: With sharp tools, whole new strategies are possible that could not even be dreamed of, without having entered complex situations.

To enter a complex situation with blunt tools is folly. To enter them consciously with sharp tools is mastery.

Complex situations – like the business environment created by digitalization.

Crisp execution

It seems that having a strategy is not necessary for survival of companies. But it is absolutely necessary to outperform the market systematically.

To win in the digitalization age, transform your organization into a sharp tool, so that execution can deliver decisive results. So what to do? Hire lots of outperformers? Get consultants in to draw up transformation plans?  Find a dynamic setting offsite and motivate your management team?

Whatever you do to get your organization into shape, you need to shape it with a purpose. A tool needs to be applied to something. It is not enough to hone a sharp edge on it, you need to have the right tool for the job, too.

But organizations are made of real people. You can sharpen tools – but how to sharpen people’s resolve, their individual ability to execute? That is were purpose comes into play. It is simply impossible to get individuals to focus their energies on the task at hand without giving them a purpose. Maintaining human resolve – a main part of the ability to execute on individual level – requires shared purpose. Shared purpose can not possibly created without a communicated strategy down to the individual level.

So here is the full circle:

  • You need a strategy to know what tools to use and sharpen.
  • But a strategy can be such a fickle thing in the dynamic ever changing world of digitalization.  It might change.
  • And building and honing tools is so time intensive. A dilemma.

Here any waterfall model will fail, e.g. step one: Get a strategy – with the help of lots of highly paid strategy consultants. Step two: Align the organization. Step three: Execute. Step four:  Oh wait, situation has changed lets go back to step one again.

The answer to this dilemma is: Preparedness and agility at all times.  

Be prepared: Sharpen your tools

Moore has shown in his work on Management Zones (see previous posts) that preparedness means quite different things in different parts of the organization. It really helps, for example to have a very well ordered and disciplined logistics departments. It might not be good idea at all to apply he same degree of discipline to marketing, design or even sales departments. Here efficiency is a secondary concern.

But it definitely helps to build up and maintain some standards of conduct on micro level at all time in all parts of the organization:

  • Ensure that meetings have an agenda and actions are followed up
  • Monitor and analyze quantitatively
  • Tolerate failure, but make sure that learning follows
  • Insist that managers improve their understanding and practice of their craft
  • Organize with a purpose, do not drift with events – use events, always look out for opportunity
  • etc.

Not every behaviour of an organization is strategy or situation dependent.

Focus on getting invariant behavior, the healthy habits of good organizations, right at all times.

Be Agile

Hey stop! Preparedness is fine, but how to build an agile organization? Preparedness can be worth nothing, if you prepare for the wrong kind of battle, where your strength are irrelevant, or if it takes too much time to muster your organizational strength.

One way to achieve organizational agility is to adapt a  team based management approach in some parts of your organization – as displayed in my last post.

Be prepared, be agile – or be late.

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  1. […] Companies got to lay the groundworks for their ambitions. I have described that point in general terms in a 2016 post Execute crisply with sharp tools. […]

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