Note from Art: a version of this article appeared originally at SmartBrief on Leadership.
Organizational Friction Kills Strategy Execution
The role of top leaders in guiding strategy creation is well documented. Less understood is that once the strategy is formed and shared, the leader’s actions must focus on minimizing organizational friction—the processes, cultural nuances, and political and personal impediments that threaten the organization’s speed-of-execution. It’s the failure of top leaders to focus on and minimize friction in key areas that slows down or derails so many otherwise good ideas.
Speed is of the Essence
A rapid cadence around strategy execution is vital in markets where aggressive competitors have their eyes on the prize at the expense of your firm’s survival or success. And, you don’t manufacture speed through logic, slide-decks, and town-hall meetings filled with talking heads. Pronouncements and slogan-filled posters don’t cut it when it comes to getting broad support for critical changes and actions around strategy.
Friction Isn’t Just for Physics or Engineers
While we associate frictional force with the resistance created when two solid surfaces come in contact with each other, friction occurs in organizations when ideas and strategies encounter individuals or groups who have to do something different or new to bring them to life. Culture, decision-making approaches, and standard processes all create resistance and slow down adoption, adaptation, and execution.
Once the direction is set, intended outcomes clear, and roles and responsibilities understood, speed is everything. Friction in the face of change is real, and it will slow or kill your plans. To begin building a rapid operating cadence for strategy execution, top leaders must focus on reducing organizational friction in three key areas.
Three Areas Leaders Must Focus On to Enable Speed with Strategy Execution
1. Focus on Winning Hearts and Minds
We don’t regularly connect strategy execution and emotions. That’s a mistake because achieving support plus a rapid cadence of decisions and actions is much about the emotional connection individuals feel to the organization, leaders, and intended outcomes. Ultimately, emotions eat strategy, execution, and speed for lunch.
In one organization grappling with creating traction in what leaders perceived was a life-extending new market, early attempts at gaining organizational support by top leadership failed miserably. People were confused about why they were being asked to shift their focus away from the markets and customers they enjoyed serving.
Top leaders failed to achieve an emotional connection between the need for change and the individuals responsible for bringing it to life. As it worked to overcome this friction, the emotional specter of change forestalled any adoption of the new strategy while slowing execution in legacy markets.
New leadership changed the formula. They worked tirelessly to involve individuals in idea-generation and situation assessment, ultimately creating both a common understanding of the need for change and a strong desire to be part of this new adventure.
Leaders must shift thinking from the mechanistic view of strategy and execution to one that embraces the need for hearts and minds to carry out the plans. When people invest emotionally in pursuits at work, they are faster to identify problems, propose solutions, and bring ideas to life.
Effective leaders take their cause directly to their team members, field the tough questions, and offer clarity, context, and connection for the mission.
2. Accelerate the Speed of Decision-Making
The most important thing every leader and manager does every day is to make decisions. Decisions beget actions that enable results, success, failure, and learning. Yet, in too many organizations, decision-making is blocked or distorted by process, hierarchy, culture, and political expediency. And few organizations have specific learning and development initiatives that emphasize developing decision-making skills.
Effective leaders connect decision-making processes, skills, and speed to cadence for strategy execution. They work hard to identify the barriers and bottlenecks that get in the way of rapid decision-making, and they strive to decentralize and distribute the authority to make necessary calls.
In one organization striving to gain traction and customer acquisition in a new market, six months of poor results led to a series of interviews with individuals on the front-lines about what was working and what wasn’t. The team members were excited about the potential in the new market, and early customer feedback on the firm’s offerings was positive. However, success demanded new approaches to conducting business, including changes to sales and marketing programs and new partner development.
When meeting with senior management, it was apparent there were very different viewpoints on the value of and approach to the initiative, particularly between the sales and marketing leads. These political and strategic thinking differences created the friction that slowed decision-making and crippled the front-line team members.
Based on the interviews, the firm restructured the initiative and armed the ground-team with autonomy for marketing and sales decisions, including new partner development. After a short time adapting to their new decision-making power, the initiative gained traction, and new customer acquisition accelerated.
Your challenges might not be in sales and marketing, but wherever cohesive execution and speed are needed but not happening, there are problems with decision-making processes. Effective leaders understand the connection between decision-making and speed and continuously strive to assess and lean-out processes steeped in the hierarchy, bureaucracy, and politics across groups.
3. Learning and Adaptation
The concept of Observe, Orient, Decide, Act, or the O.O.D.A. identified by a fighter pilot (Colonel John Boyd) in the 1950s is regularly referenced to describe how humans respond to stimulus. Our brains work through this sequence of activities, with the object of deciding the right course of action.
The faster we orient on the situation, and the more precise our decision-making rights and options are, the quicker we move through this cycle. In the pursuit of operational speed in our organizations, it’s imperative to teach and enable our teams to accelerate through their O.O.D.A. loops.
Few if any plans work out in reality as they are drawn up on paper. One element of strategy execution I’ve observed entire organizations grow excited about is the ability to work to bring the strategy to life and to have the autonomy to recognize what’s not working and make needed adjustments based on these insights.
Leaders concerned about the speed of execution understand the connection between observation, orientation, decisions, and actions, and they arm their teams with the tools and authority to continuously shrink the time it takes to move through this cycle.
In our earlier example of the front-line sales and marketing resources charged with new market development, every customer engagement and marketing campaign was an experiment that fed the learning process and subsequent actions. The team members developed their version of a feedback loop and took pride in the ever-improving results driven by their ability to sense, process, and respond faster than competitors.
The Bottom-Line for Now:
Building teams for speed demands diligence from leadership in identifying and eliminating the largest sources of organizational and individual friction. Offering a clear context for strategy is a great start. However, winning the hearts and minds, simplifying and accelerating decision-making, and motivating learning and adaptation are the essential steps where leaders help their organizations achieve the speed necessary for success.
Additional resource by Art Petty at SmartBrief on Leadership: Fixing Strategy Execution with Commander’s Intent.