How to execute effectively – Part 1
Efficiency and effectiveness in the public sector is difficult to come by. This is the reason why there has been a rash of reforms targeted at improving the performance of the public sector. It is for the reason of the perceived lack of efficiency and effectiveness of the public sector that many governments in the world resort to outsourcing public sector work to private firms. Privatization and other forms of private sector management of the economy have been justified on the belief that the public sector managed by the government would remain inefficient and ineffective. But we know that this belief may be just ideological. There are many public sectors in the world that are efficient and effective in executing their mandates. So, the claim that the public sector cannot be efficient and effective is not a universal truism. It depends on the context of a society.
The causes of inefficiency may differ from economy to economy. But certain features seem to be constant and fundamental irrespective of the characteristics of the economy. The major cause of the lack of efficiency and effectiveness of the Nigerian economy is not so much about bad choice of policy as much as ineffective execution. This is not a secret. Many people complain that the problem of economic management in Nigeria is not the lack of good policies but the failure to effectively execute policies. For example, we have formulated many high sounding economic development plans, right from the early 1970s but none of these grand development plans have resulted in sustained economic and social transformation of the Nigerian political economy. Such is the grand scale of policy failures that Nigerian governments are now leery of launching grand policy initiatives. The unwritten wisdom is to avoid the big ambitious policies because of the blackmail of past failures.
From the history of failed economic and political policies we can identify poor execution as the main cause of underperformance, whether of a private enterprise or the public sector. We all know when we execute poorly. But we often don’t understand how and why we execute poorly. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. It is not enough to have a good plan or vision. Except that plan or vision can be effectively executed then everything comes to nothing.
The problem is that we don’t understand what poor execution means, even as we know we are executing poorly. We think that poor execution is a happenstance. It just happens that we are ineffective or we just can’t implement according to plan. Or we think that poor execution is a personnel problem. We just have staff who are inefficient or unserious. We need a personnel overhaul. It is tragic that we approach the critical issue of inefficiency in such a reductionist manner. It shows that we don’t yet understand how ineffective execution occurs. Poor execution is a process that goes beyond a happenstance or a few incompetent or dispassionate staff. Execution is a process. It is also a strategy. Therefore, poor execution is a failure of process and a failure of strategy.
So how do we improve our capacity to execute? To get to understanding how to improve execution we need to know how execution feature in the performance and productivity value chains.
The Value Chains of Performance:
The value chains of performance are strategy, operation and tactics. Strategy relates to informed choices about goals and objectives. Operation deals with methodology for achieving strategic vision. Work plans are operational matters. Tactics deals with technique for actual delivery of goals through the work plan. Michael Porter, the Harvard Business School guru and father of competitive advantage, differentiates between what he calls “operational efficiency” from “strategic positioning”. Strategic positioning related to how we differentiate ourselves from our competitors through new services or new ways of delivering the same services. In strategy we make high level policy decisions. Operational efficiency means performing those activities that we have selected to define us and our competitive advantage better. Better could be faster and cheaper. After we have a strategic vision and established the activities and methodologies that we enable us achieve strategic vision, then we need to focus on delivery. That is tactics. These stages relate to one another. The choice of goals and objectives through strategic thinking determines the activities and work plan of the organization. And both the strategic vision and the operational matters will determine the tactics for delivery. In a sense, strategy determines direction and operations and tactics determine whether the journey ends as designed.
For a country caught in a recession, strategy determines sets of policies that would get the country out of the woods. A good strategic vision requires wisdom. Apart from gathering relevant information and having knowledge of both internal and external environments, a good strategy requires that you make a wise choice between alternatives. Wisdom is very important in the context of value pluralism. A manager/leader, as a decision maker, is faced with the trouble of choosing between two policies that could be equally well-meaning and supported by authorities and evidence. In real life management making these choices requires more than a brain full of information. Yes, we need to have good information about what outcomes will likely follow each of the options. But also, we can never be too sure of future outcomes so we often rely on disciplined intuitive and ‘gut’. And this is where wisdom matters. As long as strategic vision is a product of informed choice, the main faculty we need for strategic vision is wisdom, application of knowledge.
Understanding the Relationship between Strategy and Execution
After strategic vision the problem starts. Even if the manager and leader has made the best strategic choice of direction unless the vision can be effectively and efficiently executed the organization cannot get to destination. The voyage will still be ‘bound in shallows and miseries’, as Shakespeare would put it. How do we ensure effective execution? First, we need to understand the relationship between strategy and execution.
The failure of execution arises mainly from failure to fully understand the strategic direction and to keep strategy firmly in mind when executing. Execution fails because we think of execution as disconnected from strategy. When we are done with strategy we start with execution. This is a false dichotomy. Strategy and execution are linked and continue to be linked through the duration of project execution. To solve the problem of discontinuity between strategy and execution we now talk of strategic execution. Strategic execution brings execution into the realm of strategy. As Mark Morgan and his colleagues put it in their book, Executing Your Strategy, the antidote to the disconnect between strategy and execution is to “think systematically in linking evolving strategy to the project investment that will bring it to life”.
To systematically link strategy and execution requires a number of actions that are often overlooked. Frist, in developing strategic visions, strategists should consider execution. A strategic vision should embody in itself the seed of its execution. The disconnect between strategy (policy) and execution arises primarily because of failure to consider at the stage of crafting the strategic vision the myriad issues of identity, purpose and culture on the one hand, and project implementation on the other. This failure results in a bad strategy; a strategy that will be difficult to implement; a policy that will not result in desired outcomes.
In this same wise, project executors need to remain attuned to the project leadership domain. As Mark Morgan and his colleagues put it, “project leaders must go beyond a narrow focus on doing their projects right. They must pay attention to the broader strategic picture and understand the organization well enough to understand the barriers to execution”. Therefore, line managers charged with executing strategic plans should continuously see themselves as part of the strategy. They should make good efforts to understand how strategy ties to organizational identity, purpose and culture and see project management as a means of transitioning strategic objectives to strategic outcomes.
Connecting strategy to execution in this syncretic sense is the first step to improving execution. It commits the project executor to understand the strategic universe of project implementation such that projects are tied to strategy and therefore, able to achieve organizational purpose.
• Dr. Sam Amadi is Chief Ideas Officer, 6th Sense Consulting. He can be reached @ firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Sam Amadi Abuja, Nigeria 234-803-329-9879
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