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Effective Executive: Asking the right questions

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Minister of finance, Kemi Adeosun

Minister of finance, Kemi Adeosun

Last week we said that great leaders know when to shift from the deliberative mindset to the implementation mindset. They know that it is when decision is to be made that you doubt and look for contrary opinions. It is wise to be hesitant while we have not yet to signed off the project. But the moment the decision has been made on the best available evidence and most potent strategic imagination, it is too late to continue to wager between two opinions, it is too late to continue to entertain doubts about the mission. It is then time to fiercely execute. As we say it, at the planning stage, you put on the mindset of deliberation. At the implementation stage you put on the implementation mindset.

Level 5 Leadership: Combining Deliberation and Implementation
Jim Collin talks about Level 5 leadership as the secret of the most successful companies. A Level 5 leader, according to him, manifests paradoxical virtues of humility and professional will. They are humble as well as fierce in their execution. He gave an example of a Level 5 leader as Darwin Smith, the CEO at Kimberly-Clark, a leading paper company. “Smith epitomizes Level 5 leadership. Shy awkward, shunning attention, he also showed iron will, determinedly redefining the firm’s core business despite Wall Street’s skepticism. The formerly lackluster Kimberly-Clark became the worldwide leader in its industry, generating stock returns 4.1 times greater than the general market’s”. The research conducted by Collins and his colleagues threw many other Level 5 leaders. But what is common about these leaders is that they were both humble and decisive, even obdurate in carrying out very unpopular or difficult reforms and transformations in their business and ended up making their businesses industry leaders for a long period.

This is an embodiment of the deliberative and implementation mindsets in varying degree and in varying stages of project management. Level 5 leaders are humble to consult widely and engage different experts at the strategic and operational stage when they are working to choose strategic directions and to prototype the project. They accept contrarian viewpoints and perspectives. They ensure that those who sit at the strategic and operational table are diverse and differentiated. But once the decision has been made on the project to execute and the roadmap has been designed, these successful leaders/managers turn into an implementation mindset and exercise professional will. They don’t second-guess or take prisoners. They are unwavering in their resolve.

Although Collins does not discuss Level 5 leadership in terms of deliberative and implementation mindsets his insight about the amalgamation of humility and strong will in the best of business leaders can be used to further buttress the importance of the shift from deliberative to implementation mindsets. Level 5 leaders are successful because they are very humble. Because of humility they are able to access information that aid decision making and able to get many people on board and create the environment that makes it possible to construct a committed team. So, humility enables good deliberation that enables good strategic decision. But they are also fiercely decisive and unwaveringly resolute in implementation. That is what Collins calls ‘professional will’.

Understanding the shift from deliberation mindset to implementation mindset is important for successful execution. Except we can trust that we have done the deliberation part very well we can’t be sure we will implement successfully. We have to build an implementable project before we can be sure we can successfully execute. The umbilical cord that ties the strategy stage together with the execution stage lies in the quality of the transition from deliberation to implementation. Business and organizational leaders who do well in building the process of deliberation and the process of implementation end up as master executors.
Building a Good Execution Process:

So, at the heart of the problem of execution is how well we build the process that enhances the impact of the deliberative mindset, at the project building stage, and the implementation mindset, at the implementation stage. Process design is an important feature of effective execution and organizational leadership.

Process is king in effective execution. The reason many beautiful and potentially powerful initiatives don’t get to be executed successfully is that their promoters never thought through the process of execution. To execute effectively we need to ask series of questions that will lay bare the process of execution. Asking the right kind of questions will provide the right kind of information. The right information leads to the right knowledge which ultimately results in effective execution. Failed execution is often the result of failure to understand the execution process. The execution process simply refers to interrelationship between various components of the project execution. Some of these components may be technical while others may be environmental. We are effective in execution in as much as we are good in asking these important questions.

Effective execution requires clarity in the process of implementation. Good questions lead us to understand the constraints and hindrances in moving from strategy to operations to tactics. The first important question to ask is: what is the problem. There could be no good execution if we don’t understand the problem. Many people think they know the problem they want to address and set off without really thinking through the situation to understand the problem. Oftentimes, the ill understanding of the problem is because of blind-spots. Our paradigm may deprive us from accessing true knowledge of the problem. This is why we need to ask relentlessly about the problem.

The second question would be in the nature of asking how the problem manifest. This question helps us to sketch out fully the dimensions of a problem. We don’t know a problem we want to deal with until we know all the ways it manifests. To execute against the problem identified we also need to know the linkages and relationships of the problem situation. How a problematic situation interacts with social, political and economic environments constitutes critical linkages and relationships that determine the context of the problem. The linkages and relationship will provide answer to another question: what is the delivery point for action. This then leads to another question: who needs to act to create solution. This will lead to another question: how do we get the person to act.

These question build an execution matrix: the nature of the problem; the manifestations of the problems, the intricate web of the problem; the delivery points for action; the personnel for action; and the incentive to generate action from actors. Gaining clarity on this matrix is part of the deliberation process for project implementation design. If you fail to ask the right questions at this stage, you get insufficient or plainly wrong information. This sort of information build knowledge that is not intelligent and actionable. That is leads to failed execution.

We begin to fail in execution when we fail to generate good knowledge about challenges and constraints of project implementation. And it all begins with not asking the right questions.

Dr. Sam Amadi is Chief Ideas Officer of 6TH Sense Consulting and teaches Law at Baze University, Abuja. He can be reached on samadi29@yahoo.com


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