What we have here is a failure to execute!
The biggest management problem today is not creating visions, nor developing strategic or tactical plans. The real problem is the failure to effectively execute. Balls get dropped, deadlines are missed, deliveries are half-done, priorities constantly change, projects overrun budgets, and initiatives do not get satisfactorily accomplished. It is easy to see why.
We have an overload of messages and communication to wade through. Communication about execution is not face-to-face or even in real-time but more and more conducted remotely. Coordination is more difficult as organizations become more decentralized and matrixed. As the need for collaboration increases, personal accountability is increasingly diluted and unclear. True employee engagement is in decline. A return to 20th century command and control hierarchy will not work, as today’s workforce wants and expects more influence over decisions that affect their day-to-day work, not less. The solution is to deploy new practices and systems that improve execution while simultaneously creating more commitment.
Nine Aspects of Effective Execution Support Systems
A comprehensive approach to deploying practices and systems to support execution involves nine distinct aspects that can be grouped into three categories: Set Up for Success, Follow Through, and Feedback.
Set up for Success
Set up for Success involves four aspects that assure teams as well as individual members are aligned and in agreement with the desired outcomes. If the task or initiative is missing certain elements or is poorly structured at the start, execution will be hit or miss.
- Goals – Much has already been written about the importance of linking individual team member goals with those of the overall enterprise and department. This provides each member with a clear “line of sight” up to the broader organization goals. If tracked by the system, senior managers can also “look down” the chain of command to see activity and status of how goals are being accomplished in real time.
- Clear Requests – This is an underrated management skill. It involves identifying an individual performer, explaining the context for the request, and then making a clear request that includes a specific due date and deliverable. Priorities do not deliver, only due dates matter.
- Employee Engagement – In the context of the modern workforce command and control practices will no longer assure employee engagement in outcomes. And neither does “drive-by” task assignments where managers dole out assignments without any real dialog with the intended performers. Hierarchy is out; managers and employees now operate on a near-level playing field. Managers need to learn to make requests and then gain individual commitment from each performer through a more peer-to-peer dialog.
- Accountability – This is more than getting a clear plan of who will do what by when. The key to accountability is achieving a negotiated commitment by the performer. For example, performers are given the option to make counter-offers to requests with alternate due dates or alternate deliverables. The dialog concludes with the performer saying “you can count on me”.
It is surprising in this day and age to see what poor tools, policies and procedures companies, managers and even employees have for tracking project and task follow through. Email, still the most prevalent communication system, is ill-equipped to handle structured follow up. Project management tools track outcomes, but are generally “overkill” for tracking ongoing activities. The practice of delivering should be much more explicit. Effective follow through involves three aspects.
- Dialog during delivery – Forging an agreement to deliver an outcome by a certain date is not the end of the conversation, it is the beginning. Stuff happens along the way, priorities shift, new information surfaces, problems arise. A threaded dialog, in the context of the task, enables all parties to keep in close touch along the way with status updates and adjustments. Relying on unstructured email messages in your in/out box does not work; new systems are needed to manage and present these conversations along with workflow to show who has the responsibility for the next action.
- Real time visibility into progress – A Gantt chart shows the task start and predicted end dates, but it does not provide any real-time visibility into the progress of the project or task. Weekly status review meetings are fine for general department or project updates, but there is no need to experience a week-long time delay for resolving critical issues and updates. Systems that provide immediate notice to all concerned parties of progress and issues enable earlier identification and resolution of issues that impact delivery dates.
- Explicit delivery and assessment – In lieu of sliding in partially complete outcomes over a soft due date, managers and employees need to “crisp up” the final stage of task completion. Having made a clear agreement to deliver a certain outcome by a certain date, the performer should conclude the task by making an explicit delivery (i.e. “I am delivering what I said I would deliver.”). The manager-requester is then obliged to explicitly accept the delivery and offer an assessment of their satisfaction level with the outcome. Waiting to provide feedback until the year-end performance review misses innumerable opportunities for management, employee and overall process improvement.
No system is complete without feedback mechanisms that inform all participants and guide future performance improvements. Organizational learning depends on feedback that is relevant and actionable. All concerned parties need and expect to know “how are we doing” from a near term and long term historical organization and personal perspective.
- Scorecards/batting averages/metrics – Providing real time metrics indicating quantity and status of every commitment each individual is currently accountable for with the associated agreement for completion date enables better resource allocation. Status and delivery statistics not only drive performance; they also drive trust. The best systems provide measurement for performance of managers as well as team members (e.g. identifying managers who have a high rate of making requests and then canceling them may provide previously hidden opportunities for productivity gains). Summary metrics that reflect a large number of specific delivery commitments (e.g. on time deliveries) can be incorporated into annual performance reviews.
- History to learn from – A historical record of “what went down” can benefit managers and employees by providing a comprehensive record of who-said-what-to-whom-and-when associated with a particular task/initiative. By reviewing a series of past commitments, patterns of behavior emerge that can guide performance feedback with very specific, granular examples. Moreover, organizing past deliveries in the context of whole projects can guide future improvements on a more macro scale.
When looked at closely, execution actually depends on a number of identifiable and interrelated factors that address setup, follow-through, and feedback. Setting goals and conducting weekly follow-up meetings only scratches the surface. Managers need to develop a better understanding of the many aspects of effective execution. Better tools that support these aspects are in the Beta and customer-testing phase.