Aligning Strategy and Execution
The strategic focus of an organization is to deliver recurring value to its customer base through which profitability of the firm is guaranteed to its shareholders. The senior management focuses on finding the right opportunities that meet this strategic fit while identifying the high-level objectives with key performance indicators. The middle management is then tasked with coming up with executable strategies that align with the high-level goals identifying initiatives, such as projects, programs, and operational considerations, with specific measures and metrics. The execution and the tactical team then focuses on these projects, programs, and operations delivering the required outputs and keeping the lights on!
The literature on change and quality management are filled with the fundamental premises of management dedication, employee empowerment, factual decision-making, continual improvement, customer focus, and partnership alignment. Whether we discuss scientific management framework from the industrial era or the strategic program and portfolio management framework prevalent in the digital age, organizations face challenges in getting this synergy between strategy and execution sowing the seeds of priority misalignment leading to several types of failures in project execution, program delivery, and quality improvement.
Image Credit: Created by Sriram Rajagopalan on Stencil
The phrases like “we are in a constant fire-fighting mode,” or “picking your battles to win.” have become so much a cliché of the core expectations of the management.
Image Credit: Created by Sriram Rajagopalan on Stencil
Governance is about Strategic Execution, which is not just a focus and strength game but a game of learning with continuous improvement.
The much-needed solution to this conundrum of bridging the senior and middle management came to me when I played an archery game with my son on the Wii-U. He explained that I need to pay attention to the wind and distance before I can release the arrow. “It is not just a focus and strength game but a game of learning with continuous improvement ” he reasoned when I kept missing the target. It dawned on me immediately why people were failing to pay attention to strategy in execution.
While the approach from the senior management tells the middle-management which target to shoot the arrow, the archer still needs to have a specific plan on how to execute to ensure the benefits align to the expectations of the senior management. It is, therefore, management’s responsibility to establish a forum for review and ongoing assessment with specific predefined metrics and measures for appropriate corrective and preventive actions. This review forum is the strategic governance.
However, when the managers and leaders fail to instill a process for this governance with a steering committee to gauge the changes in the marketplace for strategic objectives, realign priorities of financial and non-financial resources, evaluate progress of existing initiatives, monitor risks to quality delivery, and assess people for their capabilities, skills, and competencies, then they inherently suck the oxygen out of operational excellence. In such cases, the organization fails to learn strategically, resists to make improvements, and continues to rely on significant innovations for rescue continuously. A growing team should face new challenges to overcome and not stumble upon the same old problems. It is leadership’s failure to put the appropriate governance framework to ensure that execution is continuously aligned with the strategy.
Image Credit: Created by Sriram Rajagopalan
The essential factors for operational excellence may vary within industries, but they all should be having five essential facts that I would like to call with a mnemonic phrase, “Strategy coordinates complex deliverable optimization.”
Strategic Benefits – The strategy should deliver more than PowerPoints that make it into high-level objectives in people’s scorecard. The leaders are accountable to provide clear, measurable benefits that the execution should provide. One of the critical artifacts from program management domain is the benefits register that leaders should produce as an outcome from their strategic planning.
Coordinated Planning – While top management may have the vision, only the middle management knows the challenges of execution. So, senior management should identify groomable talents within the organization involving them in the planning exercise with actionable outcomes. One of the best tools that the program and portfolio management domains recommend is a roadmap that orchestrates when the incremental and consolidated benefits will be realized (remember I just didn’t say delivered) to help with adequate prioritization of customer and business value-add.
Complex Interdependencies – Whether benefits are delivered incrementally or consolidated, the complex interdependencies among projects and the operations still have to be conceived by leadership and management. The middle management should be empowered to reskill their competencies in such a way that they are able to articulate around the political, economic, societal, technical, legal, environmental, ethnic and demographic (PESTLEED) dimensions leading to operational excellence. The best way to hold the top and middle management accountable is to have frequent management checkpoints (besides the health gate reviews) to inculcate the risks to delivery and the costs of non-delivery as part of their program or project design including the considerations for transition and succession planning.
Deliverable Integration – Particularly when benefits are incremental, but also as benefits become consolidated, integration of a number of advantages is a change management exercise. Understanding how changes impact the organization and evaluating the sensitivity around it as the projects and programs. This may take the form of standard operating procedures and transition, capacity, and succession planning agreements (note that I didn’t say just a plan or meeting but agreement) but most importantly having a controlled approach to releasing both the products to production as well as people to other projects.
Optimized Pace – Having a closed eye to how people will stretch themselves to deliver when benefits are not prioritized with multiple high-level priorities with interdependent resources is waiting for accidents to happen with the hope they don’t. The most critical assets to replace are the people and not having the above measures in places increases the stress level. Allowing people to decompress by requiring them to work on personal stretch goals aligned to the strategic benefits will help them reskill themselves to deliver on complex initiatives. They can’t getand choose different battles to fight leading to employee attrition in the absence of execution treated with strategic outcomes aligned to the organizational benefits.
These five elements, in my humble opinion, is the governance fabric that lays the foundation for operational excellence. The tools identified for each of the above five aspects of the governance framework are very generic and not prescriptive so that every organization can modify this to their unique competitive landscape. We will evaluate the inter-dependencies among these tools along with other techniques in the next article.
Tell me your thoughts in the comments and let’s open a dialog. I would be excited to hear other opinions on this topic.
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Dr. Sriram Rajagopalan has more than 20 years of professional experience with exposure to multiple industries. He currently works as the Vice President of Training and Organizational Excellence at Aptus Health. Previously, he worked in the same capacity establishing the Proposition Delivery and Program Management Office. He also established a Project Office in West Notifications Group. He has delivered numerous projects for clients such as eFunds, Northwest Airlines, CVS Pharmacy, Prime Therapeutics, US Airways, Blue Cross Blue Shield, and several pharmaceutical firms, such as GSK, Novartis, AstraZeneca, Astellas, Depomed, and Boehringer-Ingelheim.
Sriram received the international prestigious Eric Jenett award on the Best of the Best Project Management Excellence award in Oct 2017 and was also a finalist for the Kerzner award for process excellence in 2012. He frequently blogs at agilesriram.blogspot.com, has published peer-reviewed scholarly international journals, articles at Scrum Alliance and PM Network on topics related to project management, agile transformation, and about the TONES© and PARAG© framework to middle management transformation through self-initiated postdoctoral work. He is also an active speaker speaking about these topics in professional conferences.
Sriram also holds several professional certifications (PgMP, PMP, PMI-CP, PMI-RMP, PMI-SP, CSM, CSPO, CSD, CSP, IT Project+, ACC, SCM, SCPO, SCD, SAMC, SCT, CSOXP and Six Sigma Green Belt). With extensive experience in strategic project and program delivery, he promotes the scholar practitioner approach teaching as Assistant Teaching Professor at Northeastern University and University of Riverside. He is also an active volunteer at PMI Mass Bay having served in the capacities of Director of Speaker’s Bureau, Vice President of Marketing and Communication, and as a past-board member. He also volunteers at Agile Alliance conferences and is a mentor at NAAAP.
Sriram also engages actively in training project management and agile concepts including certification preparation through his own business, Agile Training Champions (www.agiletrainingchampions.com) and also in spreading project management as a discipline to younger children in schools and colleges through his initiative on Projecting Leaders of Tomorrow (PLOT) initiative (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eyS_iXEH4OY)/
He graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Electronics and Communication Engineering from the University of Madras, India, Master’s degree in Computer Engineering from Wayne State University, Michigan, MBA degree in Management from Concordia University, Wisconsin, and a doctorate degree in Organization and Management from Capella University, Minnesota.