I was recently reminded of the disconnect in difficulty between execution and strategy. Strategy is held in high esteem and well communicated across many types of academic disciplines, but business leaders bemoan execution as rarely taught and more seldom perfected.
Indeed, who would not attest that there seems always to be many more great ideas than the capacity to execute them? It is no wonder that operational executives who perform at a high level are in constant demand. They execute upon – and into – change, without missing a beat. Change seemingly bears no impact on their company’s ability to hit targets, again and again.
Nowhere is change more starkly visible than in technology’s shift of paradigm taking place right now. A handful of corporate leaders are emerging; adopting and adapting at frightening pace. They make the late majority appear as laggards, tentatively probing around in the dark, whilst the proverbial lights of the adopters are already on.
Unlike minor shifts, the move onto generative AI tools is seismic. It is akin to the PC wave, or the 1990’s emergence of the world wide web, or cloud computing, or the epoch of mobile phones. Even these comparisons underemphasize the swift nature of the current transition.
Consumer-centric technologies have always grown quickly. Netflix took only 40 months to reach one million consumers, Facebook just ten. Dropbox had seven months between user one and one million, but ChatGPT’s one millionth adopter showed up within just five days. The question we’re left with is how strategy can be successfully executed in the face of such speed of change.
Business leaders are grappling with how best to build into this fluctuating future, and often consider implementing more entrepreneurial models to support their business systems and help teams to cope. It’s a scary world out there where the strongest executors are performing not because of their years of experience but because of their ability to leverage tools only recently made available to them. Time will tell how long this advantage holds.
Coping with Change
An operating system in the world of software is a low-level support infrastructure for your computer’s basic functions. An operating system for your business, is a set of execution principles that provide infrastructure to support goals and accountability.
Just like in the world of software technology where operating systems underpin far more complex programmes, execution principles ought to be simple and standardised, in order to stand up to any number of complicated challenge or projected changes ahead.
Execution I believe to be a learnt discipline and can be tackled broadly in one of two ways. In my start-up, HouseME, we began by focusing on jugaad, which can be inadequately translated to a unique quick fix, or problem-solving to get a job done. This is a similar approach to the oft-quoted culture of ready-fire-aim that many US start-up founders profess to follow. And it has its place. Iterative problem solving provides great insight, hones a team’s operational skill, and allows for robust product-market fit analysis. It’s perfect when you know the market and are yourself bringing to it a disruptive change.
However, the job of today’s executive is not necessarily to bring about change, but rather to execute a clear strategy in the face of it. And that requires a rather different approach.
Execution Principles – The Second Way
Standardisation. Simplification. Rationalisation. So read an extract from our strategy document as we navigated COVID in 2020. (Find out more about our journey, here: The First Kudu.)
In retrospect, it is easy to see that these directives were instructive. We were correcting mistakes that shouldn’t have happened in the first place. We had abandoned our operating system principles and were running only complex programmes. We must have taken a few wrong turns.
If you are running a company that already has product-market fit and now seek scale and excellence, these principles following – as they should have been for HouseME – are your annual operating system blueprint. Let jugaad go.
Principle 1: focus on only one goal
Make it measurable, and
Make it meaningful
Especially as the world shifts around you, hold to the core values, vision and target that you set yourself. Communicate this openly, repeatedly, and passionately. Commit to the single most important number that you must deliver on and find a way to connect every single person in the team to that deliverable.
In our case, our single most important goal was new leases signed. That was all we should have focused on in 2020. Instead, we had focused on five products across two user profiles. Too much.
Principle 2: pull the right levers
Work only on projects that influence the one goal, and
Capture objective project data as feedback on a daily basis
As work is delegated, each project or workstream must have its own measurable targets that are easily, inarguably calculated. The impact of a team achieving their singular project’s target ought to translate directly upwards into your company’s target and vision.
HouseME did not sequence projects correctly. We had several people working on several priorities, which meant there were no priorities. As the world changes, don’t be distracted by the other opportunities presenting themselves. Reiterate that each day’s opportunity cost is incalculably valuable and therefore daily progress must be made.
Principle 3: Create a cadence
Accountability must be a regular weekly feature of all meetings, and
The selected levers must be accurately and transparently displayed
Assuming that the right people are actively engaged and in the right roles in your organisation, the scoreboard keeps everyone honest and aligned. It would have been worth investing in a slightly more sophisticated system than what we had built at HouseME for this. You ought to build confidence and motivation as regular data reflects your team’s progress.
It’s neither too late, nor too far removed from your current management’s ability to execute upon an operating system similar to this one. Executing a strategy may remain the hardest aspect of your job, but the speed of change should not detract from your focus on the fundamental basics. Executing against an operating system provides guardrails and structures that will promote aligned innovation, and counterintuitively is more likely to see new tools tried by your employees, in contrast to when they feel overwhelmed and unsure as to where their responsibility starts and ends.
Rather than chase the latest and greatest tools which provide speed and output assistance, return to your underlying systems infrastructure for prioritisation, allocation and accountability to set your company up for a stellar 2024.