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The secrets to successful strategy execution - sort of,

I was delighted to read the words of Harvard Business Reviews editor,
Thomas A. Stewart, in his editorial introduction to the June 2008 edition. In his piece
headed Tools for Change, he briefly previews the journals lead article, The
Secrets to Successful Strategy Execution.
In re-stating the authors claim that clarifying decision rights and designing
information flows are the most important aspects of execution, he points out that
those [areas] are the least subject to corner-office diktats. They involve dirty hands
and messy conversations [my emphasis].
Reading this, I eagerly thumbed through the pages of the journal to see what the
authors had to say about the messy conversations at the heart of strategy
development and delivery
only to be disappointed. The mess and informality are nowhere to be seen.
Instead, readers are presented with a well ordered list of factors, which the authors
label the 17 fundamental traits of organizational effectiveness. These are intended
to provide managers with the basis for diagnosing organizational ills and planning
formal actions to deal with any perceived deficiencies.
The article has been written by three senior members of global strategy consultancy
firm Booz and Co. It is based on the results of a questionnaire that they have designed
around what they describe as the four building blocks we knew could enable
effective execution. These they list as:
changing structure,
clarifying decision rights,
designing information flows, and
aligning motivators.
The outcome is a ranked list of 17 organizational traits relating to these four factors,
which the authors claim distinguish those organizations that manage execution
effectively from those that are less successful.
The factors are hard to argue against, in a common sense sort of way. For example,
few would dispute the suggestion that strategy is more likely to be executed
effectively if everyone has a good idea of the decisions for which he or she is
responsible (ranked #1 on their list). But collective outcomes emerge from the
complex interplay of a vast array of peoples moment-by-moment actions and
interactions. And these are only governed in part by their formal roles and
responsibilities. Or by the 16 other formal interventions that are put forward in the
Frustratingly, the authors get tantalisingly close to recognising this. As they
acknowledge early on in the article, Execution is the result of thousands of decisions
made every day by employees acting according to the information they have and their
own self-interest. Unfortunately, instead of unpicking this statement and revealing
the important insights it contains, they move on quickly to describe their formal,
structured prescription for strategy implementation. This potentially pivotal sentence
therefore remains unexplored. And so do two critically important points on the
dynamics of strategic management that are buried within it:
First, the worth of information that employees have available to them at any
one time depends heavily on how, individually and collectively, they
perceive, interpret and evaluate it.
Secondly, self-interest plays a crucial role in the process through which
people - alone and in conversation with others - make sense of whats going
on and decide how they are going to act.
This local sense-making happens in the moment-by-moment exchanges of everyday,
self-organized interaction. And, most importantly, this process is not within the gift
of individual managers or management as a whole to control. This also means that
any formal information flows that may have been studiously designed in, to provide
people with the right information at the right time, have little or no impact on
the mass of informal information that contributes significantly to everyday sense
making and action taking.
These dynamics of self-organization will not go away, however well structured and
commonsensical the formal actions taken by management might be. Nor can the
powerful impact of self-interest be neutralised - less still controlled simply through
the introduction of formal reward mechanisms. If managers wish to influence the way
that strategy is executed in their organizations, they need to take the informal
dynamics of everyday interaction as seriously as they do the formal aspects of their
roles. This means engaging directly with the dynamic networks of self-organizing
conversations that make up their organizations, with the intention (though not the
guarantee) of helping to shift the patterns and content of those interactions in
organizationally beneficial ways. This is the essence of strategic management, as
Ralph Stacey argues inStrategic Management and Organisational Dynamics 5Ed (2007:
Strategic management is the process of actively participating in the conversations
around important emerging issues.
In contrast, the HBR article remains firmly within the strategic choice school of
strategy development and execution. This privileges the formal, rational and
structured elements of organization and management ahead of its hidden, messy and
informal dynamics. From this perspective, it is often assumed that the messy stuff
will disappear, if managers do the formal aspects better and get it right. On other
occasions, as here, these underlying dynamics are ignored altogether. So, although
the editor of the journal appears to have recognised their powerful impact on
organizational outcomes, the article itself has failed to unearth these particular
"secrets to successful strategy execution".