We see the same mistakes over and over again. Strategy execution is challenging but leaders often make it even tougher. In our work with global leaders and their teams, we see repeated, universal strategy execution missteps that leaders should learn to recognize and avoid.
Here are the top 8 pitfalls we see even the most capable leaders struggle with:
Communication doesn’t equal execution. Leaders often assume that once they have communicated the strategy, even once, that execution will happen automatically.
- Starting with the easy action. Frequently leaders choose the quick and easy steps when executing a strategy because they think having success with small steps will build momentum. The easiest activities might not be the most valuable; they often don’t provide the market insight or organizational info needed to refine a strategy in execution. They are easy often because they are known. Small steps into the unknown could have created dramatically more value.
- Never say “no.” Good leaders understand the strategy, but fail to assess realistic capacity. They don’t clearly prioritize actions and/or say “no” to the least important initiatives. In a recent HBR article, only 11% of leaders surveyed feel that all their company’s strategic priorities have the resources they need for success.
- Believing that today’s skills can create tomorrow’s vision. The adage “what got you here won’t get you there” holds true for organizations adapting to changing market conditions. The failure to recognize that some skill sets are no longer required, while some new ones are essential can severly limit execution progress.
- Get squeezed by current work and urgent issues. “Fire-fighting” and the immediacy of daily operational issues (or as some say – the “whack-a-mole” approach to execution) can challenge a leader’s ability to stay clearly focused on strategy execution.
- Stakeholders proceed on divergent paths. Even when initially aligned, key stakeholders diverge over time in execution – leading to scattered focus and results. Successful leaders proactively maintain alignment over weeks and months of execution activities.
- Activity focus vs. results focus. A leader focused on “Checking the box” on a project plan may miss the triggers to adapt actions to respond to market shifts and customer changes. All that activity may not ultimately execute the strategy.
- If it’s everyone’s business, it’s no one’s business. A lack of clear accountability for strategic results and dispersed decision making ownership can undermine or lengthen the time to deliver strategic results.
We see strong, capable leaders struggle with each of these challenges even in a business simulation environment, where time is compressed and the business challenge simplified for learning purposes. Leaders struggle because execution is tough: business opportunities aren’t crisply defined; team members digest and process information differently; and strategic tradeoffs are often weighed against a range of divergent criteria.
However, if leaders can recognize these pitfalls, they can avoid them. Executing strategy is not a recipe. There is no simple formula. Leaders need to develop their judgment. A business simulation helps a leader to see, and with that perspective, change his or her behavior.
Jean Williams is an affiliate at Insight Experience, a Boston-based firm delivering contextually rich, immersive business simulations and learning experiences to accelerate and integrate leadership, business acumen and strategy execution.