89 – Local government strategy implementation. Myth 4: A performance culture drives execution.

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                                                              530 words

multiple targets

This is the fourth 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, and the third post covered the myth that communication equals understanding.

Sull, Homkes and Sull disagree with executives who believe that a weak performance culture is the reason strategy isn’t translated into results. They say that the ‘official culture’ may not support execution, however, the organisation’s true values will reveal themselves when managers make hard choices from day to day, which usually have a focus on performance.

Two thirds of managers cited past performance as the performance most valued when promotion decisions are made. Underperformers are generally not dealt with well. The majority of organisations studied delay action (33%), deal with underperformance inconsistently (34%) or tolerate it (11%). Overall, the companies surveyed had a strong performance culture, yet they struggled to execute strategy.

The authors believe that the reason is that organisations that value execution must recognise and reward factors other than past performance. Continue reading

87- Local government strategy implementation. Myth 3: Communication equals understanding.

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                                              240 words


This is the third post in a series of five. The first post discussed the myth that strategy execution equals alignment and the second post covered the myth that strategy execution means sticking to the plan.

Donald Sull, Rebecca Homkes and Charles Sull say that many executives believe that ‘relentlessly communicating strategy is a key to success’. They suggest that checking whether staff are ‘clear on the organisation’s top priorities’ is less useful than asking them to describe the organisation’s strategy in their own words and to list the top five priorities.

This would be an interesting exercise in local government where the ‘strategy’ is not always clear.  Strategy can mean different things.  It can be the ‘strategic position’ taken by an organisation in response to customer or community service demands (i.e. its relationship to its market). It can also be the ‘strategic approach’ the organisation adopts in doing the work necessary to meet those service demands (i.e. thinking long term and holistically). And it can be a documented ‘strategic plan’ with actions to move from the current state to another preferred state (i.e. a roadmap). Often these definitions are used interchangeably.

An additional problem identified by the authors is that strategic priorities are not only poorly understood but they often ‘seem unrelated to one another and disconnected from the overall strategy’. This feeling is not uncommon in local government. They believe that part of the explanation is that communication is measured in terms of inputs (the number of times something has been communicated in different ways) instead of outcomes (how well do people understand what has been communicated). Again, this is not uncommon in local government either.  It is easier to measure inputs – ‘I told them about it!’ 

In the next post: Myth 4: A performance culture drives execution.

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

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. Continue reading

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

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                         700 words


Image from http://www.clipartpanda.com

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. Continue reading

83- Myths of strategy implementation. A series of posts.

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                                              280 words

treasure map 2

This series of posts builds on a previous series about how job design impacts on strategy implementation to focus on other systemic organisational factors. It draws on ideas from the article ‘Why Strategy Execution Unravels – and What to Do About it by Donald Sull, Rebecca Homkes and Charles Sull, which was published in the Harvard Business Review in March 2015. The authors have been conducting research for nine years into how complex organisations can execute their strategies more effectively.

The research is ongoing and the article discusses some of the insights that have already become apparent. In particular, five myths about how to implement strategy are exposed and alternative approaches are discussed. The central thesis is that most organisations have clear and accepted definitions of strategy but know a lot less about how to translate a strategy into results. Continue reading

18 – Integrated planning in local government. Some questions and answers. Part 1.

This short series of posts follows earlier posts on local government planning (see posts 11 and 12).

First to the questions. Is planning integrated simply because we each make our plans at the same time and tell each other what we are doing?  Is integration achieved simply by joining together multiple independently created plans into one plan? This approach can be seen in many councils. When everyone prepares their plan at the same time, even when they share information with each other about their plans, I would hardly call it integration.  When the 20 or more departmental plans are completed and then joined together, I wouldn’t call that integrated either.  In fact, both approaches are likely to result in the opposite of integration if they create competition for resources and a focus on goals at a local level that is not aligned with organisational goals. So, what can integrated planning look like?

Integrated business planning has been described as connecting the planning function across the organisation to link strategic planning and operational planning with financial planning.  The objective is to improve alignment (thank you Wikipedia).  This makes sense to me, especially in a diverse service organisation like a council where between 20 and 200 services (depending on how you define them) are delivered to customers using resources from a common pool.

Price Waterhouse Coopers have a handy booklet on their web page on integrated business planning that focuses on process integration and functional integration (http://www.pwc.com.au/consulting/publications/integrated-business-planning.htm).  They say that the extent of integration will depend on the size of the organisation, the operating model it employs, the inherent complexity of the organisation and the industry.  Again, this makes sense and picks up on the need to look at your organisation vertically and horizontally to achieve high performance.

Some local governments have been getting in on the act.  The Australian Centre for Excellence in Local Government (ACELG) has released a study on strategic planning frameworks across local government in Australia (http://www.acelg.org.au/news/strategic-planning-australian-local-government).  If focuses on strategic planning (i.e. trends and issues in the locality) and corporate planning (i.e. the administration of the council’s own activities).  It identifies a number of practical, conceptual and resourcing challenges for councils in undertaking effective strategic planning.  The most advanced planning framework identified is in NSW, where the Local Government Amendment (Planning and Reporting) Act (2009) has the goal of strengthening the strategic focus, streamlining planning and reporting processes, and encouraging integration between the various plans of councils.

The ACELG study says that in comparison with other states, the NSW Planning and Reporting Guidelines for Local Government provide a very detailed structure for integrated planning.  A ten year ‘community strategic plan’ is the highest level plan, and it sets out the community’s main priorities and aspirations for the future and actions required to achieve them.  Some actions are the responsibility of the council while others are the responsibility of other levels of government or community organisations.

It is accompanied by a ‘resourcing strategy’ that focuses in detail on the council’s responsibilities and includes a ten year financial plan, a ten year asset management strategy, and a four year workforce development plan. The next level plan is the ‘four year delivery program’, which covers the main activities to be undertaken by the council to implement the ‘community strategic plan’ within the resources available under the ‘resourcing strategy’. Lastly, an ‘annual operational plan’ supports the delivery program and sets out the projects and activities to be undertaken to achieve the commitments made in the ‘four year delivery program’.  This planning framework should ensure that plans are relevant, feasible and integrated.

Lancing Farrell

ACELG, 2013. Strategic planning in Australian local government – a comparative analysis of state frameworks (http://www.acelg.org.au/news/strategic-planning-australian-local-government).

Price Waterhouse Coopers, 2011. Integrated Business Planning (http://www.pwc.com.au/consulting/publications/integrated-business-planning.htm).

13 – Salvation, obfuscation or simply tokenistic? What roles do policies and strategies play in your organisation?

I was talking to a colleague whose Manager has recently joined Victorian local government for the first time, to find out what were her initial impressions. He said that she had commented on the large number of policies and strategies, and whether they could possibly be effective given the difficulties synchronising them and avoiding conflicts. It started me thinking.

When I first started working in local government we had policies and strategies. They were important documents that guided action. We didn’t have many and they weren’t changed without very good reason. Making a new one or changing an existing one, wasn’t a regular way forward on issues. That has certainly changed. Today, policy fills a number of roles, one of which is still to guide action. The other roles are worth some brief reflection.

Policy and strategies have increasingly become a source of salvation for CEO’s and senior managers faced with elected representatives wanting to pursue political goals that are unpopular, unaffordable, unachievable or unnecessary. It can be a way of saving politicians from themselves. Rather than committing to action on the initiative, a process to develop a policy or plan is commenced to ‘map the way ahead’. The fact that it often doesn’t lead to movement anywhere seems to go unnoticed. The last time I completed a stock take of strategies it revealed that the majority of actions hadn’t been acted on (in some cases after 20 years, although the strategy was still live) and the actions were not implemented for very good reasons. They just weren’t a good idea.

In fact doing the stock take revealed that the review schedule for policies and strategies was logistically unachievable without significant extra resources. If you look at the number of policies you have, the scheduled review interval (typically 3 to 5 years for policies and 5 to 10 years for strategies), and do the maths, you will realise that the organisation can’t actually do it without stopping delivering services to re-allocate the required resources to policy and strategy review.

Policy and strategies have also become a way to obfuscate. Instead of acting on an issue that has an obvious but difficult or expensive solution, a policy or strategy is created that hides the real significance of the issue and provides and easy, cheap and ineffective ‘way forward’. I have heard officers talking about policies or strategies that have been implemented and had no effect. The outcomes are still the same. Surprise, surprise. Sometimes the choice of policy or strategy in these situations is not deliberate – it has become almost innate and part of the modus operandi of some senior people.

One of my ‘favourite’ examples of strategies is one that deliberately failed to specifically address a critical and contentious issue. When I questioned the officer responsible for developing the strategy, he said that it was a deliberate decision on his part. Because he believed consensus was not possible and this would have delayed agreement to the strategy, he left it ambiguous so that it could be ‘sorted out later’. The ‘later’ happened to be when I became involved and there was a budget for works and no clarity about what to do. Thanks. He was a senior policy officer and it was his standard approach.

Policies and strategies have become increasingly tokenistic. In a recent post on the Pannell Discussions, the topic of ‘tokenistic policies’ was discussed. The focus was on government actions that are tokenistic, and as a consequence, unlikely to make a real difference. David Pannell asked, ‘why do governments do this, and how do they get away with it without provoking public anger?’ These are good questions and they apply to local government as much as any other level of government in Australia. I have seen policies that everyone knows are infeasible but it solves an immediate political issue in a way that minimises any future organisational commitment.

Pannell suggests two reasons for tokenistic policy. The first is to be seen to be doing something, even though they know that is unlikely to be successful. This is better to be seen to be doing nothing. His second reason is ignorance. People think it is a good idea and they don’t have the technical knowledge to know that is poor policy and will achieve little. His most interesting commentary is in relation to how governments get away with it. He cites four reasons:

  • Complexity – even experts would have trouble working out an effective policy response and most people can’t judge whether or not it is good policy and they end up trusting that the government is doing what it says it is.
  • Time lags – the effects of the policy won’t be known for some years, and by then it is hard to connect the results to the policy.
  • Intractability – some problems can only be solved at exorbitant expense or not at all. Implementing a low cost policy limits the waste of resources.
  • Communication challenges – it is just too hard to discuss the issues in terms that most people will comprehend.

I am not suggesting that all local governments are creating policies and strategies that are simply convenient but ineffective solutions to difficult problems; devices to avoid doing something that everyone knows should be done; or simply a way to be seen to be doing something with no intention of it being effective. However, there are occasions when they obviously do.

I suppose, we all need to ask ourselves the question.

Colin Weatherby

Pannell Discussions, http://www.pannelldiscussions.net/2014/10/274-tokenistic-policies