85 – Local government strategy implementation. Myth 2: Execution means sticking to the plan.

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                                              600 words

Gantt chart

This is the second post in a series of five. The first post discussed the myth that execution equals alignment.

Sull, Homkes and Sull describe how organisations translate their strategic objectives into detailed plans that specify who will do what by when and with what resources. A large amount of time and energy is invested in the plans. Executives are then reluctant to deviate from the plan because they think that would reflect a lack of discipline and undermine execution.

However, a plan cannot anticipate all of the things that might help or hinder the organisation in achieving its strategic objectives. All managers and employees need to ‘adapt to facts on the ground, surmount unexpected obstacles, and take advantage of fleeting opportunities’. Organisational flexibility is required. Sull, Homkes and Sull put it so eloquently when they say that

‘No Gantt chart survives contact with reality’.

Strategy implementation is defined as ‘seizing opportunities that support the strategy while coordinating with other parts of the organisation on an ongoing basis’. Further, when managers come up with creative solutions to problems or pursue opportunities, the authors believe that they are not ‘undermining systematic implementation’; instead they are ‘demonstrating execution at its best’. This is in stark contrast to the way local government views plan implementation. A council not sticking to its plan and achieving every objective is seen to be failing and breaking commitments.

Sull, Homkes and Sull describe the ability to make ‘real-time adjustments’ to changing circumstances as ‘agility’. In their study, when asked to name the greatest challenge to strategy execution nearly one third of managers identified difficulties adapting to changing market circumstances. In such an environment, agility is a necessary capability. The companies surveyed do adapt to change but they either react too slowly that they miss opportunities and can’t mitigate emerging threats (29%), or they react quickly and lose sight of strategy (24%). Structure is required in the processes to respond to changing circumstances.

Acting slowly or in ways that are inconsistent with strategy is definitely a problem in local government. Many plans are outdated when completed because they simply ‘codify’ past strategic decisions. The strategic thinking behind the plan could be more than a year old and the actions in the plan may be obsolete already.

In a changing environment the allocation of ‘funds, people and managerial attention’ requires continual adjustment. Better resource allocation can provide the agility required. However, in reality, resources often remain ‘trapped in unproductive uses’. This is a particular problem for local government where major funding reallocation decisions must be made publicly by the council. If changes are to be made from the original plan the councillors must first be convinced and then be able to defend them if challenged by constituents. This is difficult when such changes are often seen as broken promises.

The council administration is also constrained in reallocating people across functions to support changing strategic priorities. Jobs are defined by position descriptions that often restrict the management prerogative to redeploy staff. Most industrial agreements require notification or consultation regarding the introduction of change. Opportunities exist at almost every step for staff or unions to frustrate any attempt to redeploy people from one function to another if they do not agree with it.

As part of the study, Sull, Homkes and Sull asked managers whether they believe all of their organisation’s strategic priorities have the financial and human resources needed for success, and found that only 11% agreed – nine managers out of ten expect some major initiatives to fail because of lack of resources. This would be an interesting test for local government. Have all of the objectives of the Council Plan been adequately resourced for implementation? My guess is that the answer is ‘probably not’ unless the organisation has been very conservative in setting them.

In the next post: Myth 3: Communication equals understanding.

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