A carefully crafted plan for execution follows the articulation of a strategic initiative’s steady state; the plan is critical to ensure that the initiative closes related strategic gaps and improves operational productivity and organizational maturity necessary to stay on track to meet financial goals.
Strategic Planning warrants a strong organizational commitment to convert strategic initiatives to practically executable operational plans. Throughout strategic planning, the operational plans for prioritized initiatives should be incrementally built, starting with an articulation of the steady state. After developing planning outcomes that frame strategy, underlying initiatives, and associated resource needs and operational impact, the company must direct all efforts towards operational planning to consider the cycle complete.
At least 4x time and resources should be directed to operational plans compared to deriving expense and revenue forecasts from well-developed strategic deliverables. The reason is simple – strategic initiatives and their influence on processes affect all the work done by Overhead ‘Fixed’ Resources, who execute enablement strategic initiatives, and Frontline ‘Variable’ Resources, who incorporate operational improvements from strategic initiatives to optimally execute day-to-day processes.
As covered under corporate strategy and strategic planning components, all aspects of the planning effort has to be cross-functional, where the planning team consistently wears a company-first hat, until its time to develop operational plans. Function-specific leads and topical experts are engaged at this stage to translate each prioritized strategic initiative’s steady state into execution phase plans.
Operational plans and execution suffer from an inherent handicap compared to strategy development, financial forecasting, and board-level discussions about the company’s future – it’s not “cool”! Most senior executives, managers, and even junior employees want to be in the spotlight and operate from an ivory tower about how the business runs. Operational planning requires a company to ensure that employees play to their strengths (i.e. Comparative Advantage Culture) and that there are enough employees with strong experience and affinity for developing and improving operations.
1: Ready | Fire | Aim
Abraham Lincoln said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe”. Small- and mid-sized companies don’t have to go that far; but, too often, they struggle with the idea of committing a small amount of time upfront to prepare for execution. This challenge leads to significant rework and lack of clarity on the exact purpose after work starts on initiatives. Finding the patience and discipline to manage work effectively starts at the top of the organization and should be developed as part of a company’s Leadership Approach.
2: Lack of respect for operations
Strategy and culture do not eat anything for breakfast! If they are to eat, the operator has to roll-up the sleeves, cook the meal, and serve it. Although management gurus have popularized important concepts such as strategy and culture, these concepts deserve only the same weighting in the Growth Framework as Operations. Many executives and employees at fast-growing companies underestimate the importance and influence of operational design and execution.
In other words, most people in the company should not be strategizing and redefining culture; only a few should be. An additional few should be skilled operational designers, while the vast majority should focus on being exceptional operators. This challenge is easiest to mitigate if the company has implemented a strong Leadership Approach, including a Comparative Advantage Culture. As a short-term solution for strategic planning, the executive sponsor and strategic planning lead has to direct relevant functional resources to place significant focus on operational planning during the latter stages of the planning cycle.
3: execution experience is not operational design experience
Best coaches are rarely the best players and the reverse holds true as well. At small- and mid-sized companies, strong execution of processes for a period of time is often misunderstood as qualification to redesign the process or manage others in executing the process. Doing something and designing how to do it better require very different skills. Asking functional managers with limited operational design experience to develop plans for strategic initiatives is likely to result in operational plans that are tactical and has a low probability of achieving and maintaining the desired state.
Planning The Execution Phase
The operational plan for a strategic initiative can be broken into two halves: 1) the Steady State, which should be developed first, and 2) the Execution Phase, which should be reverse engineered from guardrails set for the steady state.
The purpose of the Execution Phase is to propel current operational conditions of processes or maturity level of capabilities to the desired steady state. So, planning the path has to begin with the end in mind. All aspects of the execution phase should have a singular focus on how to achieve the steady state and maintain it. The specific format or structure of an execution plan is less important than the quality and specificity of the answers to very critical questions. These questions can be framed into five areas:
1: Tasks & Deliverables
Operational improvements do not happen because Frontline ‘Variable’ Resources are simply asked to raise their performance. It is the senior executives’ and Overhead ‘Fixed’ Resources’ responsibility to identify specific ways to improve productivity and maturity in a company. This implies completion of analytical and design tasks, and creation and socialization of related deliverables. However small a company is, a strategic initiative without deliverables that can be evidenced is highly suspect and is unlikely to achieve and maintain the desired steady state.
- What are the specific tasks that will improve the operational conditions?
- What tangible outputs will be created to memorialize improvements?
- What are the parameters for expected quality of outputs?
2: Owner & Contributors
Every strategic initiative needs one owner and that owner does most of the work. In a small- or mid-sized company, there is no need for multiple organizational layers of ownership or accountability, which ties back to recommendations around developing efficient organizations. The owner of a strategic initiative is the person that rolls-up the sleeve and executes on most tasks and deliverables. Other contributors may also have to be identified. This component of operational plans validate the Overhead ‘Fixed’ Resources included in the Initiative-Resource Map used for financial forecasting.
- Who will quarterback the initiative through the execution phase and through transition?
- What are the specific skills required to complete all necessary tasks and deliverables? How much time should be committed by each?
3: Milestones & Deadlines
Accountability for execution of strategic initiatives is just as important as accountability for measurable operational processes. Milestones are the leading indicators for qualitative enablement initiatives. They ensure that the company can measure progress towards achieving the steady state and hold the owner accountable, if timelines or quality of outputs are slipping.
- What are the tangible progress measurements that the owner is accountable for at various stages of the execution phase?
- What are the specific steps to transition the initiative to a steady state?
4: Risks & Dependencies
Unexpected challenges can come up; however, well-planned efforts rarely encounter surprises. Strong operational planners consider external factors that are outside the company’s control and continually reassess corrective actions that can be taken. Small- and mid-sized companies should be careful not to use dependencies on other internal strategic initiatives as a risk or reason for failure – such bottlenecks are caused by a failure to collaborate and points to gaps in the Leadership Approach.
- What are the potential external constraints that may cause disruption of this effort?
- Are any other efforts dependent on this strategic initiative or vice versa?
Not every aspect of execution will be clear from the get-go. However, it is possible to develop a simple problem-solving tree that allows the execution owner to create clarity about new information that has to be gathered and the choices that will be made once the information is gathered.
- What are the unknown aspects of the plan and what information is necessary to make decisions?
- What are the specific forks in the road and how will the information gathered dictate the paths taken?
Often underestimated, execution planning has a very high return on invested time because it significantly reduces rework and ensures that there is organization-wide clarity on alignment between the five areas relevant for execution and the desired steady state.