Why Execution Stalls

Don Sull, of the London Business School writes about “why execution stalls,’ in the March 2010 issue of the Harvard Business Review.  He also offers a set of steps to take to ensure successful execution of programs.  While he focuses on the private sector, the lessons seem equally relevant to the public sector!

Execution stalls, Sull notes, “when executives deluge the organization with multiple, conflicting priorities.”  In addition, the following factors contribute to stalls:

  • There are too many leaders and not enough managers.  Middle managers aspiring to leadership disdain the nuts and bolts of general management.
  • There’s no time built into the organization to take on the organizational changes needed to improve agility and execution.
  • People “stay in their lanes” by saying “it’s not my job” to deal with cross-cutting or long-term issues.  Executing most initiatives reach across organizational boundaries —  both insides and across organizations – and when people focus on their stovepipes, execution often grinds to a halt.
  • The bias by executives against investing time and resources into mission-support process and bureaucracies.  Too often executives, especially political executives, believe that processes and bureaucracy distract people from doing the “real” work of the organization. True to some extent, but short-term under-investments lead to long-term organizational dysfunctions.
  • The allure of fighting, not preventing, fires.  Too often managers are rewarded for high-visibility heroic efforts, making them seem as indispensible players.  But, Sull notes, “The moves required to improve a company’s execution capabilities, on the other hand, have all the sex appeal of plumbing repairs.”
  • Managers don’t know how to execute.  Too often general managers rise up from the specialist ranks. Sull says “They know how to excel in their sport, and as a reward, they’re recruited to play a different game altogether, for which they are often ill suited.”

Execution succeeds, Sull says, when:

  • Executives have the ability to spot new opportunities when they get real-time data and formal reports, supplemented with front line observations, that are shared across functions.
  • There are processes in place that create a “line of sight” between organizational priorities and individual objectives.
  • Employees are rewarded for performance, not mediocrity.
  • The organization’s core values are clearly articulated and have teeth when it comes to hiring, promotion, and firing decisions.
  • The right conversations occur in the organization, and managers can effectively structure and lead them.
  • A cadre of ambitious, adventurous managers hold key positions.  Sull calls them “Vikings, not farmers.”
  • There is constant pressure to focus on results, and the organization does not rely on fire-fighting and heroic efforts.

How does your agency rate on these criteria?


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