90 – Local government strategy implementation. Myth 5: Execution should be driven from the top.

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                                                              700 words

the Executive

This is the last post in a series of five. The first post discussed the myth that strategy execution equals alignment, the second post discussed the myth that strategy execution means sticking to the plan, the third post covered the myth that communication equals understanding, and the fourth post covered the myth that a performance culture drives strategy execution.

Sull, Homkes and Sull say that top-down strategy execution has a number of draw-backs, including ‘unravelling’ after the loss of a strong CEO. This is because strategy implementation in large, complex organisations ‘emerges from countless decisions and actions at all levels’. The leaders closest to the situation are best positioned to make the required decisions. Top-down implementation may boost performance in the short-term but it reduces the organisation’s capacity over the long-term.

“Frequent and direct intervention from on high encourages middle managers to escalate conflicts rather than resolve them, and over time they lose the ability to work things out with colleagues in other units. Moreover, if top executives insist on making the important calls themselves, they diminish middle managers’ decision-making skills, initiative, and ownership of results”.

In large and complex organisations, strategy execution ‘lives and dies’ with ‘distributed leaders’, which includes middle managers, and technical and domain experts in formal and informal networks. These distributed leaders represent ‘management’ to most employees and customers. Their actions, particularly the way they handle difficult decisions and the behaviours they tolerate, contribute significantly towards supporting or undermining organisational culture.

Sull, Homkes and Sull say that although strategy implementation needs to be driven from the middle of the organisation, it needs to be guided from the top. Distributed leaders can struggle to translate organisational strategy into terms meaningful for their teams if senior management fail to ensure that they understand the strategy. In their research, they found that this failure is the norm, not the exception.

When different levels of the organisation pursue their own objectives, conflicts arise. Distributed leaders work across silos and the research identified many who were struggling. They found that a minority of middle managers consistently anticipate and avoid problems (15%), or resolve conflicts quickly and well (26%). Most resolve issues after significant delays (37%), try but fail to resolve them (10%), or don’t try at all (12%).   Structured processes to facilitate coordination would help. More importantly, one third of the distributed leaders surveyed believed that factions existed within senior management and executives focussed more on their own agendas than what is best for the organisation.

There is significant evidence of strong CEO’s or Group Managers in local government who radically change organisations to drive their strategy and then leave (often to take a better job based on their success in change management) and the change effort dissipates and the organisation returns to its equilibrium position.

In addition, when the Executive regularly becomes involved in ‘re-managing’ work (more in a future post) by trying to make the decisions best made by distributed leaders, it disempowers and de-motivates middle management. Their authority is effectively undermined and more decisions flow to the Executive, which is usually followed by longer and more Executive meetings.

Distributed leaders in local government organisations are often not recognised or appreciated for their effort. As a result, many are labelled troublesome because they continue to lead but not in the way that the Executive would like them to. Unless they feel part of the organisational decision making and valued for their role, they are likely to withdraw or be critical of decisions made by the Executive. Either way it is potentially career limiting and doesn’t help the organisation to implement its strategy.

When strategy is made up on the run and not communicated to distributed leaders, they feel disenfranchised. If they see members of the Executive ‘cherry picking’ issues that suit their career agenda or their ability to make an impact, rather than tacking the issues that need to be addressed for improved organisational performance, they become critical of the Executive.

All of this supports the view that strategy implementation can’t be driven from the top. The Executive needs to trust and include the middle managers and other distributed leaders if they really want high performance and the best outcomes for the organisation and its customers.

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

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