Strategy and execution deserve communication with more punch

by | Apr 20, 2015 | Blog | 0 comments

boxers Are strategy and execution two separate actions, or are they the same thing?

Wherever you land on this topic, the communication about both is inadequate, especially to get the results leaders want.

Several heavyweights, starting with professor and author Roger Martin have been debating the strategy vs. execution point on Martin’s HBR blog post, Stop Distinguishing Between Execution and Strategy.

Martin wrote the post in response to the March 2015 HBR article Why Strategy Execution Unravels—and What to Do About It by Donald Sull, Rebecca Homkes and Charles Sull.

In a nutshell, Martin calls the article “well meaning” yet he says it focuses on a topic—execution—that can’t stand alone from strategy. He also wrote about this in his 2010 HBR article The Execution Trap.

Rather than join the debate, I’ll first observe from the sidelines that this discussion showcases the clash between the “why vs. how” that’s prevalent in so many organizations.

The “why”—often represented by leaders—is the big picture, focused on the vision, the mission, the strategy, the context, the competition, the industry, the future and other high-level ideas from 50,000 feet.

The “how”—often represented by engineers—is concerned with the details, the specifics, the particulars and everything else those on the ground and in the trenches think they need to put plans into action.

This is a natural divide, as I learned in my applied neuroscience program. Our brain has two different systems for processing the “why”—the motivational—and the “how”—the executional—which work at different times.

Each of us shows a preference for using one system over the other, although we can strengthen the one we’re weaker in. For more about this, including a link to the research, check out my blog post 3 ways to calm why vs. how feuds.

Meanwhile, communication challenges exist around both the “how” and “why.”

As for the “how” system, featured in the March 2015 HBR article, “Communication equals understanding” is one of five “pernicious myths.” These myths are widely held beliefs about how to implement strategy that are “just plain wrong,” say the authors.

The authors go on to observe that too many executives believe that if they communicate the strategy relentlessly, they’ll succeed at execution. The authors make some great points backed by examples from their research.

Now, I’ll jump onto playing field and add my punches.

The problems with communication about organizational strategy and execution are at least threefold. We tend to:

1. Muck up the messages. Rather than strive for clarity and help people connect the dots, we often shovel out stuff. In fact, there’s so much stuff—the vision, the vision, guiding principles, top priorities, key initiatives, strategic objectives, values, etc.—that it’s extremely hard to figure out how they’re woven together and what deserves focus.

Since humans are inherently “mental couch potatoes” according to UCLA professor, researcher and author Dr. Matthew Lieberman, it’s natural for employees to ignore or dismiss messages that seem out-of-place, overwhelming or confusing. When eyes glaze over, employees are likely to return their attention to their immediate tasks at hand.

2. Assume people are following us. We also fall into a trap of talking at employees about the strategy and the implementation, rather than engaging them in a conversation about it. We think they “get” what we’re saying and can follow through. However, if employees don’t have a chance to explain the strategy in their own words or come up with examples of how their day-to-day actions are supporting the strategy and implementation, they can’t fully embrace the new ways.

When we ask employees if they comprehend what they’ve heard or read, they’re inclined to agree—even when their understanding is low. They don’t want to hurt our feelings or be put on the spot. Yet, we should test their level of understanding, not just ask. There’s a reason for testing; just think about drivers’ tests. First-time drivers have to pass both a written exam and a road test. Book knowledge doesn’t automatically transfer to behind-the-wheel and on-the-ground ability.

3. Measure activity not results. We then tend to measure communication activity rather than the more important outcomes. For example, we look at the number of town halls we hold, the webinars we conduct, the email messages we send, the Intranet postings and sites, etc. We generally don’t measure whether people—especially key leaders—are systematically helping frontline employees turn information into actions that change their behavior and advance the strategy.

In my experience, this area can be more contentious than the linkage between strategy and execution. Many communication professionals prefer to measure things that they fully control—such as communication activity—rather than assess whether anyone is taking the right behaviors that will lead to the implementation of the strategic goals.   Yet, communication on its own does not reliably spur action–which is what needs to happen. For more on this topic, check out this LinkedIn post Stop This Myth: Communication = Behavior Change.

Those of us who care about clarity and change need to take a stand and insist on delivering more powerful communication. Whether we believe strategy and execution are a one-two punch or serial actions, better to referee that argument and instead fight for better communications all around.

Will you get in the ring and join me?


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