84 – Local government strategy implementation. Myth 1: Execution equals alignment.

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                         700 words


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This is the first post in a series of five posts drawin on ideas from the article ‘Why Strategy Execution Unravels – and What to Do About it’ by Donald Sull, Rebecca Homkes and Charles Sull.

In the article Donald Sull, Rebecca Homkes and Charles Sull describe the usual way strategy is implemented – i.e. it is translating it into organisational objectives, which then cascade down the hierarchy, progress is measured, and performance is rewarded. This accurately describes what theoretically happens in local government.

The authors found that when asked about improving strategy implementation, executives suggested greater use of tools such as management by objectives and the balanced scorecard to ‘increase alignment between activities and strategy up and down the line of command’.  In other words, execution relies on alignment and failure to implement strategy is a result of a breakdown in the linkages between strategy and action at each level in the organisation.

This type of thinking is also prevalent in local government. You regularly hear CEO’s talk about the need for ‘line of sight’ (usually represented by a triangular diagram) and the need to cascade Council Plan objectives through Branch and Department Plans into the Performance Development Plans of each person.

In their research, Sull, Homkes and Sull discovered a significant discrepancy between what should be happening and what is happening. Alignment was evident with objectives being cascaded down the organisation. Most managers said that they had goals that were specific and measurable, and that they had the resources needed to implement them. Yet strategy was not being implemented. Why?

One reason became apparent when managers were asked ‘how frequently they can count on others to deliver on promises’. Over 80% said that they could rely on their manager and direct reports all or most of the time. Only 9% of managers said they could rely on colleagues in other functions all of the time and about 50% said they could rely on them most of the time. The authors concluded that when managers can’t rely on colleagues in other functions that they compensate with a range of dysfunctional behaviours that undermine strategy implementation. This includes duplicating effort, letting commitments to customers slip, delaying their deliverables, or passing up opportunities.

This will be no surprise to anyone working in local government.   The difficulty in working across functions, or silos, results in lack of trust and replication of the work of others – ‘Keep your own records, don’t rely on them’. Lack of cooperation is a good reason not to meet commitments made outside the council or to deliver as promised. ‘I couldn’t deliver the service on time because I was waiting for someone to do their bit and they let me down’. Opportunities are also missed to increase productivity or make savings – ‘I know it would be quicker, but why make them look good’.

The implications of a serious organisational focus on cross-functional processes becomes evident when councils implement lean thinking or other process improvement methods. The reality is that councils are still structured around different functions and professional groupings. The fact that services are actually delivered through work flows across functions is seldom formally acknowledged and rarely influences how the organisation is managed. Each branch or department operates independently and seeks to optimise its performance, even if this sub-optimises the overall organisational performance.

Sull, Homkes and Sull also looked at the way goals are cascaded downwards through organisations and found that most organisations do this effectively but have limited ability to manage across functions. Despite having cross-functional committees, service level agreements and centralised project management offices, only 20% of managers surveyed believe that these integrating mechanisms work well all or most of the time. More than 50% of managers want more structure in the process to coordinate activities across functions.

Failure to provide structure to cross organisational collaboration also creates the potential for conflict, which according to the authors, is handled badly 66% of the time and resolved after a significant delay (38%) or resolved quickly but poorly (14%) or simply left to fester (12%). This again is commonplace in local government. Councils have difficulty dealing with conflict and the stories about difficult decisions that remain unmade are commonplace.

In the next post: Myth 2: Execution means sticking to the plan.

Sull, Donald, Homkes, Rebecca, and Sull, Charles 2015. Why Strategy Execution Unravels – and What to Do About it’, Harvard Business Review, March.