How much of your annual strategy will you achieve?
If you are like most companies, probably around 60%. Research estimates that 70% to 90% of strategies fail due to poor execution. A good strategy does not need to be smarter than last year’s strategy: it needs to be more actionable.
Often strategies are not completely executed upon for a number of reasons, among others:
- Not enough time dedicated to strategy planning, because we spend our days fighting fires.
- Lack of alignment among the leadership team. Strategy is about saying “No” to tempting initiatives, but if your team doesn’t go deep enough to surface disagreements and discuss necessary trade-offs, your team’s commitment to your strategy is only superficial. As a result, employees do what they think is best, often unable to connect the overall company priorities with their daily work – leading to a waste of resources.
- No connection with an operational plan.
How to put together an actionable strategic plan?
Here are four tips to make your annual strategic plan more actionable:
Invest time to debate strategy – at least one full day, preferably two.
I sometimes hear small companies complain that “this is for large companies; we don’t have time for this!” They are wrong: there is no minimum size to invest time in strategy. A friend of mine is a solopreneur; once a year he spends a full workday in a local forest to reflect on the past year and define his strategic priorities for the upcoming year. Taking the necessary time to select the right annual priorities will make next year much more effective: a well-facilitated strategic planning workshop day is a great investment towards better strategy execution. In other words: slow down now to go faster next year.
Invest extra time and effort to de-complexify your plan.
Smart people tend to make things detailed and complex. However: Your plan is good if you have managed to boil it down to its fundamental essence – so that your strategic message doesn’t get lost in translation when you communicate it to your employees.
Create alignment with your leadership team.
As CEOs we like to think that we listen to our teams, while they often don’t feel listened to: we satisfy ourselves with superficial agreements and don’t go deep enough to surface disagreements. The way your strategy planning workshop is facilitated has a tremendous impact on team alignment – and hence the way your strategy will (or not) be executed. Here are some facilitation ideas:
- Ask one of your team members to play devil’s advocate (“What is the #1 reason why this would not be a good idea?”).
- Ask another one to play your Core Customer and take part in the strategy conversation from the customer’s point of view.
- Track how long each speaks in your strategic meeting; if you speak more than other participants, you haven’t listened enough.
- Keep quiet for 5 seconds before saying anything – so introverted team members have a greater chance to speak up.
Discuss the right topics with your team at your strategy planning workshop.
This agenda will help you define an actionable strategy:
- Reflect on the year completed: what went well and what should go better next year?
- Discuss key changes inside and outside your company. What has been happening with clients and suppliers? How are competitors evolving? Tools like a SWOT analysis or Porter’s 5 forces can help reflect on this.
- Strategic differentiation: What makes you different in the eyes of your Core Customer? What do you need to do next year in order to accentuate your strategic differentiation and avoid commoditization?
- Define your 3-year plan: what are your 3-year goals, and which three to five strategic initiatives do you have to put in place in the next 3 years to reach them?
- Define your 1-year plan: among these 3-year initiatives, which ones do you need to work on next year, and what do you want to achieve? What are your financial and non-financial goals for next year?
- Define two to three Q1 quarterly priorities, that will enable you to move closer to executing your 1-year goals and priorities – which will put you on the right track to achieve your 3-year goals. Make sure that each quarterly priority has:
- A clear description of what success looks like – to align views on expectations.
- One (and only one) person accountable – who will ensure that the priority gets executed on time.
- A way to track progress on a weekly basis (e.g. a 13-week plan) – so you can take corrective actions along the way.
The sequence of these topics is not random:
- Debating what you should do better next year forces you to address conflicts head-on in a constructive manner – which will help you have better discussions later in the day.
- Tackling the 3-year plan first and then working backward helps see the bigger picture – and by the time you get to the 1-year plan, you and your team will have a clearer view of what is truly essential in order to move in the right direction.
- It ends with very tangible quarterly priorities phrased in such a way that everyone knows what they have to work on the following Monday – and will help you turn strategy into action.
As a business growth coach, I work with founders of mid-market companies who are frustrated because their business is not growing the way they want; my passion is to help them identify and remove the growth roadblocks they have been hitting so they can grow faster and with less pain. Sometimes these issues stem from a strategy that looks good on paper, but that is not actionable. I help them gain team alignment and convert their strategy into concrete next steps so that they can execute it with confidence. I would like to learn about your growth roadblocks; contact me to discuss at Xavier@AmbroseGrowth.com.
“My company has lots of potential, but I just feel my employees are not engaged. If I don’t push, nothing seems to happen. I’m working night and day and we’re still missing 40% of our targets. I once dreamed of being a firefighter, I guess that dream has come true. All I do is put out fires, I have no time to focus on my business.”
Sound familiar? CEOs and leadership teams can change this picture, it’s all about accountability. Creating a fierce culture of accountability starts with the CEO and leadership team.
Why is accountability important?
Accountability is about owning a problem. You want employees to behave as if they own the piece of business that they are running. When you are accountable for a specific result, you will do whatever it takes to achieve it – and you would like your team to perform this way as well.
Carlos Brito, the CEO of brewing company AB Inbev, summarizes his views on accountability in these words: “We always compare that to a rental car: you drive a rental car in a different way than your own car. With a rental car someone else will live with the consequences of your driving. With your car, you know that it will be yours the next days, months, and years, and you know that you will be living with the consequences of your driving. Employees who behave like owners are here for the long term, and they will live with the consequences of their decisions – good or bad – and that builds a great company.”
Why am I having accountability issues?
Accountability issues are very common among growing companies. When you founded your company, you were personally accountable for everything. As your company grew you started delegating the responsibilities for some results – e.g. production, customer service, or sales. However, you may not have created the communication channels required to hold your teams accountable. Why would you? You didn’t need any of this yourself, and yet you grew your business successfully. Why would these smart managers need anything different?
For one, your employees are not you. If they were, they would not be working for you: they would start their own business. Second, your company is now more complex than we you started: it has more people involved, and all these people now need to be on the same page. Third, when you started your company with a few employees, you could be on top of each of them and had short communication lines: you knew what everybody was doing, all the time. Now that your company has more employees it is impossible for you to manage them the same way: this would soak up all your time. This is exactly why you need to put a system in place that will achieve what you want (ie create accountability), without you spending all your time on it.
1. Lead by example
Like many aspects related to company culture, accountability starts with you and your leadership team. In order to create a culture of accountability you have to model the behaviors that you want to see in your organization. When it comes to accountability the rule is simple: when you make a commitment as a leader, you have to keep it. If you don’t, why should anyone else be interested in doing so? You can’t complain that employees miss their deadlines if you are occasionally late as well. As a CEO “all eyes and ears within your business are focused on you. What you say and what you do are invisibly and constantly observed, scrutinized and evaluated as your managers and employees are looking for clues as to how they should behave,” explains Mark Green.
Leading by example is not only about you sticking to your commitments, but also about your expectations from your team – and your behavior when your managers don’t meet your expectations. If your team members notice that there are no consequences for missing targets, why would they try their best? Similarly, if you tolerate one of your team members to produce poor results, why would other team members feel pressured to produce quality? When you hold your team to a higher standards, you are sending a strong signal across the organization.
2. Have the right people on the right seat
Without the right people on the right seat, nothing of what you can do will significantly increase accountability. The key question is: would you enthusiastically rehire everybody on your team? I advise my clients to assess employees on two dimensions; performance and adherence to company values. You will find more information on how to use this tool in this article.
Once you have the right people on your team you need to clarify their area of accountability. This is less obvious than it looks. The key question is: Who is accountable for each of the key functions in your company? As Mark Green explains “the exercise often reveals that there isn’t a single individual accountable for each function. When more than one person is “accountable”, nobody is accountable. It is easy to make assumptions that things will get done, but when there is not a designated person to account for a particular result, chances are, it is not going to happen. In this kind of environment, it is also easy to point fingers – Bob thought Mary would handle it, and vice versa. Other times, you’ll discover that a particular role hasn’t been filled by anyone at all; it is just implied that it will somehow be handled. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t!”
3. Clarify priorities
“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing,” wrote best-selling author Stephen Covey. “Individuals or organizations with too many priorities have no priorities and risk spinning their wheels and accomplishing nothing of significance,” says Verne Harnish in his book “Scaling Up.” Focus on a small number of priorities that will have the biggest impact on your goals, make sure that everyone on your leadership team is aligned on them – and communicate them broadly.
When employees understand where your organization is going and which role they play in it, they work less selfishly and they tend to make better business decisions on behalf of the company – simply because they can see the impact of their decisions and how they impact overall results.
4. Define clear action plans and metrics
Once you have identified who on the leadership team is accountable for each function and what your top priorities are, the next step is for each of your leaders to answer Mark Green’s key question: “What are the 3 most important results the company expects you deliver in exchange for paying your salary – and how should these results be measured? This step determines the results and metrics for each of your leadership functions. As we all know, you can’t manage what you don’t measure. If you want to increase the speed and quality of a particular service you offer, you should establish specific metrics to gauge those factors and identify metrics and targets for them. You may determine if you reach or surpass a target for three months in a row, you have achieved that objective.” Pick specific metrics, make sure that your leadership team is on the same page and that everybody aims for the clearly defined results – so that the rest of your organization can follow your lead.
Similarly, once you have defined top quarterly priorities, the question becomes: what do you and your team need to do in each of the next 13 weeks in order to achieve priorities? There are only 13 weeks in a quarter – if you do NOT view your quarter as a 13-week race, you will lose weeks and time which you will NOT get back. A weekly plan clarifies what can be expected every week, in order to meet expectations at the end of the quarter. It also makes it much easier for your leadership team to hold people accountable to their own 13-week plan.
5. Establish a metronome-like meeting rhythm
Just as a metronome calls time and sets tempo in a musical performance, so do a small set of consistently executed meetings to hold you and your team accountable, and keep everyone on the same page. The essential regular meetings are:
- Daily huddles (no more than 10 to 15 minutes) to evaluate progress on the very short-term priorities and identify any blocking issues.
- Weekly huddles (no more than 90 minutes) to review the status of the 13-week plan and course-correct if needed.
- Monthly and quarterly meetings to review progress on the priorities, take corrective actions when needed, and identify new priorities for the upcoming quarter.
I often notice that the most impactful meetings to drive accountability are the daily and weekly huddles: they create peer pressure and hence take the heat off your shoulders as the leader. They also improve communication: You won’t need to have the same water-cooler conversation three of four times, as is the case when you rely on chance hallway meetings for communication. And finally they enable collective intelligence to solve problems.
In the end, how much difference do these tools make on accountability? Pretty big, as this example from another Gravitas Impact business coach, Glen Dall, demonstrates in Mark Green’s book “Creating a Culture of Accountability”: “I worked with the CEO of a multi-location dental practice. The CEO had started with one practice that they grew very successfully – and then began expanding. At one point employee turnover rates increased to 200%. The leadership team would plan and set goals, but frequently failed to achieve them. The growth rate was declining. The CEO felt over-extended, frustrated and stressed.”
With the leadership team Glen Dall leveraged these tools to have the right people on the right seat, set priorities and targets, as well as establish a proven system to follow up on them. The result? “After our first 6 months of working together, the CEO told me, “You should be proud of how far you’ve brought the team. I feel that we have accomplished more in the past 6 months than we were able in the last 7 years.” That is the power of accountability.”
As a business growth coach, I work with founders of mid-market companies who are frustrated because their business is not growing the way they want; my passion is to help them identify and remove the growth roadblocks they have been hitting so they can grow faster and with less pain. Often their roadblocks include a lack of accountability: they have no system in place to regularly follow up on their team’s many commitments, or their teams don’t have clear priorities and metrics. I would like to learn about your growth roadblocks; contact me to discuss at Xavier@AmbroseGrowth.com.
What about you? How accountable is your team? How has Covid impacted accountability? Over the past couple of years, how many quarters has your company reached and missed their targets? What were the consequences of hitting targets, and what were the consequences of missing them? Do you have clear metrics and regular meetings in place to follow up on each of your priorities?
Let me know your thoughts in the comments section.