Failure Speak

No one in senior leadership wants to explain to their stakeholders why they either fell short or failed to achieve the organization’s strategic plan.

The dreaded speech that no one likes to give, I call “Failure Speak,” comes in a variety of forms and typically goes something like this:

When we came close to achieving  the plan and still missed it,

“Despite our best efforts, we faced unforeseen challenges that prevented us from achieving our strategic plan this year.”

When failing miserably, a tone of reconciliation is struck, and the past is swept away with the promise of a better future:

“While we did not achieve our strategic goals this year, we must view this as a learning opportunity. We can gain valuable insights from our shortcomings and use them to refine our approach moving forward.”

And as all good leaders should, they take the burden of fault away from everyone and lay the blame for failure at their own feet:

“As the leader of this organization, I take full responsibility for the failure to achieve our strategic plan. It’s clear that we fell short, and I own that.”

Failure is Complicated

Strategy fails for many reasons; unfortunately, we know them all too well. These are repeated at an alarming frequency, with estimates reaching 7 of every ten strategic plans falling short or failing outright to succeed.

Explaining what happened is difficult, frustrating, and sometimes humiliating. We do our best to put the best “face” on a negative situation. Still, the reasons we failed are challenging to recognize and much harder to command or get better at.

Here are the biggest offenders:

No clarity within the strategy— strategy execution requires having a clear and well-defined plan. If the leadership team does not have a precise understanding of its strategic objectives and the initiatives needed to achieve them, it becomes a challenge to execute any strategy effectively.

Gaps in Communication—execution relies on having effective communication throughout the organization. Suppose leadership fails to communicate the strategy consistently and make it relevant to all stakeholders. In that case, it leads to confusion and misalignment, ultimately hindering the team’s ability to get things done.

A Lack of resources—to execute well requires enough of the right resources; this includes financial, human, and technological. Suppose leadership fails to allocate or align the necessary resources with its strategic priorities. In that case, it impedes the execution process and limits the organization’s chances of success.

A lack of leadership support—execution often requires implementing changes that are unfamiliar and risky to the organization, which can be met with resistance from team members, including some on the leadership team. If leaders aren’t willing to embrace change and address resistance throughout the plan’s various stages, the potential for failure is significant, threatening future work.

No means for accountability—execution requires establishing clear roles, job responsibilities, and individual goals for future improvement. This must be done annually. Suppose leadership fails to develop a culture of accountability or hold individuals and teams responsible for their performance. In that case, driving necessary actions and monitoring progress becomes difficult, resulting in stalled efforts.

No operating framework or repeatable methodology to follow — ensuring successful strategy execution requires leaders to establish an operating framework that maps out an entire plan. This framework must have instruments for measuring progress and receiving feedback to track progress, identify gaps, and make adjustments. If leadership doesn’t establish ways to monitor progress and capture data from it effectively, it becomes impossible to assess the strategy’s effectiveness and make informed decisions.

Day-to-day business and short-term focus—strategy execution can be imperiled by teams that become overly focused on short-term results or immediate challenges. This results in neglecting the longer-term strategic objectives established at the beginning of the fiscal year. Prioritizing short-term gains over the long-term organizational vision confuses which is more important and leads to a lack of alignment and inconsistency in executing the strategy.

Coming To A Close

Strategy execution is a discipline all its own. It teaches leadership teams and organizations how to manage their daily business effectively while staying on track with future aspirations. It does this by managing the day-to-day tasks and activities of everyone on the team. Everyone must have a personal plan for what they will contribute and achieve. This creates expectations through individual goals that align with and support the critical initiatives developed at every level of the organization.

Each team knows what is needed to support the team’s objectives above it.

Once leadership decides on a direction and focus, it asks the remainder of the team for recommendations on how they can contribute to the plan’s success. They ask; they don’t tell. Everyone is involved and engaged at their level.

This helps to achieve buy-in for the plan and gain alignment from all team members. Alignment that results in a quality understanding of the needed outcomes for every level of the organization.

There are no surprises, unsupported actions, or questioning of what must happen and why—complete clarity.

Leaders can drive flawless execution by putting in the “upfront” time and effort to detail their implementation plan for their strategy. This goes beyond simply writing and communicating the strategic process to team members.

The one thing to remember? This is a choice that leaders have—they can either invest their time, energy, and resources ahead of each new year in strategy execution, or they can continue to practice and get better at “failure speak,”  promising better things in the new year.


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