Some organisations are full of talk, but fall short on real progress. Here's how your business can stop the rot.
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Whether it’s would-be entrepreneurs discussing ideas, business teams brainstorming new opportunities or senior leadership groups laying out a strategy, the desired outcome matches the actual outcome on surprisingly few occasions.
I have observed this phenomenon through two very different lenses: as a fighter pilot and part of a huge military organisation, and running a small business consulting to clients ranging from the world’s most successful companies to a social enterprise.
In my opinion, there are two critical factors which must be addressed in order to close ‘the execution gap’: alignment of effort and accountability.
There is probably no bigger barrier to great performance than lack of clarity in common purpose. Specifically, what are we trying to achieve and why. The ‘what’ and the ‘why’ actually influence each other in both directions.
Often, we might write down what we are trying to achieve only to find out that when we interrogate ‘why’, it turns out that we had the wrong ‘what’.
In larger organisations, the problem gets even bigger. It’s like one of those children’s games where each child has, in turn, to pass a message on by whispering. By the time it gets back to the start, the message is corrupted to the point of being irrelevant.
Control in business is an illusion
Maintaining centralised execution and cascading tasks from the top to the bottom of an organisation merely offers an illusion of control. How can the person in the boardroom possibly know exactly what the sales person should do?
The only rational solution is perhaps counter-intuitive: to accept the illusion of control for what it is and give it up.
Don’t tell people how to contribute, but give them clear visibility of what we are trying to achieve and why, and let them decide how to achieve their part of the mission. Centralised strategy and direction; decentralised decision-making and execution.
If lack of clarity is the biggest barrier to great performance, lack of accountability is the biggest missed opportunity. Giving people ownership as described above is not a free lunch. It comes with responsibility and accountability. Where that comes to life is in the debrief.
How did we do against what we set out to do? What went well and badly? Why? Who needs to fix things? The debrief brings closure to an activity –people don’t simply drift on to their next activity or task. In the process of understanding how things went and what can be learned, they are implicitly asked to account for their actions.
At the end of my RAF career, I spent my last three years on the Red Arrows, flying around 250 displays all over the world. I have never seen any organisation with a greater focus on learning from experience. Every single flight would be followed by a debrief.
It would never be a case of not having time to debrief. The job simply wasn’t finished until the debrief was finished. A key ingredient of a successful debrief is a no-blame culture.
A culture of learning and acceptance breeds excellence
It will be impossible to extract the correct learning if people cover up mistakes or are less than completely transparent in their contribution. Conclusions which are based on imperfect information will be, at best, imperfect.
If a no-blame environment is a cultural thing, then that makes it also a leadership thing – no group have the potential for a bigger influence on culture than senior managers. The senior person’s behaviour in leading by example and setting up the environment for that sort of dialogue is pivotal.
However, it is critical not to confuse no blame with no accountability. If things weren’t executed as planned, then some person or people need to fix things. It is essential to avoid ‘accountability smearing’ where nobody is actually personally responsible for anything.
I described above the critical contribution of the leader in building the ‘no blame but with accountability’ environment. This plays out in other ways in closing the gap between what gets talked about and what gets done. There are three key ways in which a leader can influence others’ behaviour:
Role modelling. As described above. People hear what senior people say, but what they really notice is what they do. If something’s a priority on the CEO’s agenda, it’s a priority on everyone’s agenda.
Consequence management. If a set of standards or behaviours is really important to you or the organisation, then non-compliance must have consequences. Otherwise the words become meaningless and empty.
You will get what you reward. Or to put it another way, what gets measured gets done.
There are, of course, a number of other factors which drive high effectiveness and performance. But in terms of pulling the biggest levers, if you do nothing else, set yourself up for success by aligning the team(s) and make people accountable without fear through transparent no-blame debriefing.