While facilitating a two-day annual strategic planning meeting for a long-time client the other day, a major discussion erupted over the apparent need for a “new” strategy. Obviously, the economic conditions of the past two years have negatively impacted most companies to some degree, and this client was no exception. But they have stabilized and rightsized the company, have positive cash flow and are poised to take some market share from weakened competitors as they come out of the recession.
IS THE PROBLEM THE STRATEGY OR EXECUTION?
I was quite intrigued about the stated need for a “new” strategy (which was only supported by about half the executive team), because three years ago they spent a significant amount of time and effort crafting a new strategic plan with four main threads and clear strategies, tactics and measurable goals for the short-term (0 to 2 years), mid-term (2 to 5 years) and long-term (5 or more years). Admittedly, the recession interrupted progress on some of the goals, as they refocused on the need for immediate actions to maintain cash flow and deferred some of the items. But it was nevertheless interesting to see how quickly the team forgot about all the high quality work they had done to create a great vision, seeming to think there was some new strategy or silver bullet they could or should pursue.
I listened carefully to the debate and finally weighed in re the existing vision and strategic plan. My question revolved around whether there was a problem with the vision and plan, or whether the problem was with execution. In addition to the challenges of the recession, there had been some turnover on the senior leadership team, some accountability had slipped, certain initiatives had not been completed as expected, and they had allowed other short-term hot issues to pre-empt their long-established meeting rhythm. I had already been warning them about some of this laxness, which was being excused by the need to respond to the recession. I had pointed out that in tough times, priorities, accountability, meeting rhythm and execution are even more critical and stabilizing. I challenged the assumption that something was wrong with the vision or strategy, and proposed that if they would get back to solid execution, in my opinion they could return to excellent results.
None of us has ever faced the depth of recession we have just experienced, and it was scary. But for those of us “gray hairs” who have lived through three or four recessions in our business careers, we know how to survive. And typically the answer is not to try and dramatically change the vision and strategy but rather to adapt to the new normal we will face, set appropriate priorities and execute like crazy. Rarely in my career have I seen a situation where something was drastically wrong with the vision and strategy; the problem usually is the execution. Remember, an average quality vision well executed is far better than the best vision in the world that is not fully executed.
Worry less about the vision and more on the team, alignment and accountability to execute your existing vision. As Jack Welch says in his book Winning, set a general course of action (since it will most certainly change and seeking perfection takes too long and is too expensive), put the right people in place who can execute the vision, and constantly benchmark best practices to improve execution.