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Getting Shift Done

By Merrill Strobel Bohren

May 14, 2018

Over the years, we at Ankura have been fortunate to work with hundreds of firms, in a variety of industries, at various stages in their lifecycles. And every day, without fail, another leader tells us he or she is struggling with execution.

They’ve usually got a compelling vision for their business, a vision that can create unique value for customers and grow the company. The market opportunity is clear and the strategic thinking, sound. The future now depends on whether they can get everyone to strategically shift what they’re doing and how they’re doing it to execute on that big, bold dream together. Succeed and the company can grow. Fail and it may very well shrink.

Growth involves change. We’ve learned through experience that change happens more easily when leaders first prepare people to move together fast. Of course, sometimes it turns out that a leader’s vision or strategy wasn’t grounded in a realistic understanding of the company’s market or its organizational culture. Occasionally, a competitor may launch a cheaper or better alternative first. But most of the time, the change that growth requires is a matter of first slowing down to go fast⎯and spending sufficient time on these five fundamentals of execution.

  1. See the bigger “we”
  2. Share perspectives
  3. Increase commitment
  4. Tackle misalignment
  5. Change gears

SEE THE BIGGER “WE”

Back in 1994, Peter Drucker introduced the idea that successful organizations constantly question the “theory of the business” and the assumptions on which it has been built.[1] This makes even more sense in today’s dynamically changing and increasingly interdependent world.

People want to back a winner.
They prefer to get behind a business model that wisely takes current realities into account and a growth strategy that benefits a bigger “we.”

High-functioning leaders understand this. And so they share how the company’s business model and strategy make sense in the face of disturbing geopolitics, emerging technologies, converging industries, and shifting customer expectations. Rather than protect any one team, business unit, or function (siloism, after all, only slows execution down), they invite people to look at what they are doing and what they are not doing, as individuals and teams, that impacts the good of all concerned. And by “the good of all concerned,” these companies mean not only their organization, but also their industry, their markets, and the communities they serve.

Seeing the bigger picture and having an updated, more inclusive “we” to win for creates an organic pull for change. Outdated systems, inefficient processes, obsolete partnerships and unnecessary conventions: people’s passion for making things better will naturally start to unlock and replace all these relics of the past.

SHARE PERSPECTIVES

Big, bold dreams surface big, complex problems. The more perspectives from both inside and outside the organization “we” can apply to these problems, the better. That often involves bringing more smart, committed minds together in teams from across unconventional boundaries. Solutions that leverage disparate points of view are more likely to be win-win situations for everyone.

Organizations spend an enormous amount of time trying to improve communications, convinced that they will get better solutions and better results if people just interact more clearly and frequently. We agree, with one caveat. Clear, frequent communications, in and of themselves, do not necessarily shift old ways of working together that keep the brakes on execution.

Communication does not equal understanding.
Fast execution requires that everyone truly understands
what a growth strategy or change initiative entails.

The challenge is that we each carry around mental models that shape how we think things could, should, and ought to be done. These models are made up of our beliefs and values, our experiences and assumptions, our fears and limitations. (Of course, my mental models for growth and change and this particular problem at which we’re looking seem completely logical and accurate to me, just as yours seem entirely rational and correct to you.)

It’s up to team leaders to bring diverse “me”s together into a collective “we.” First, they can acknowledge the value of each person’s perspective and mental models to the whole. Second, they can ensure that everyone sees how even more is to be gained by looking at the problem from multiple perspectives and from within a variety of models. And third, they can support the team by intentionally creating and staying aligned around a shared mental model.

INCREASE COMMITMENT

Leaders often come to us because their people still don’t get work done, even when the why, what and who they are doing it for are clear. We often quote a succinct formula developed by Dr. Robert Zawacki, former professor of business at the University of Colorado, to shine a light on what’s missing to shift that.[2]

ED = RD x CD

(An Effective Decision = A Right Decision x Commitment to that Decision)

You may have the world’s best business model. A perfect growth strategy. A shared mental model. But if people aren’t committed to executing on the decisions you’ve made, you’re dead in the water.

Human beings do what they are committed to doing. They willingly put energy into what matters most to them. For most, doing a good job matters. Having the organization they work for succeed matters. Doing good matters. But asking people to execute a new strategy is asking them to do something out of the ordinary, something beyond business as usual. It’s asking them to take a risk and commit to new work and a new future that might not matter to them.

So how do you get individuals to commit who are sitting on the fence or passively resisting? Help them figure out what’s in it for them. Committing becomes a whole lot easier when they see how what you are asking them to do connects with what they personally care about. Committing becomes a no-brainer when they get that there really is something for them in the company’s chosen future.

TACKLE MISALIGNMENT

A lot of time is spent talking about alignment in the senior levels. How do we make sure our leadership team is aligned on the vision and the strategy? How do we then cascade that alignment throughout the organization? Gaining this initial alignment is important, but not the difference maker when it comes to execution.

Misalignment during execution is inevitable.
That’s because alignment has a half-life.

Circumstances are dynamic. Talent moves on. Roles shift. Priorities bend and conflict. Misalignment will inevitably happen⎯and more than once. Alarm bells should go off as soon as a leader hears people saying things like “The team’s fine . . . ” and “Don’t worry. We always get along.” Worry. Alignment is never a once-and-done activity. And these are sure signs that someone, somewhere is holding back and putting a silent stranglehold on work that needs doing.

Realignment doesn’t happen spontaneously. Insightful CEOs, knowing this, build the responsibility for initiating conversations that get people realigned quickly and effectively right into the company’s leadership culture. They themselves model with their leadership team what it’s like to have people freely speaking with each other (rather than about each other), promptly clearing up any misunderstandings and misperceptions, and sharing their concerns and insights. They expect their leaders to have or develop the skills to facilitate similar courageous, committed dialogues, in which people start talking about what’s not working and where they’re no longer aligned, throughout the company.

CHANGE GEARS

Change is unsettling. And people crave certainty. That’s why they want to see what’s in their company’s future, where they fit into that vision, and in what ways they may have to shift their energy and their focus. They want to know up front that everyone is on board and willing to work together. And when you get right down to it, they will only fully commit to a vision when they believe it’s really possible.

Seeing the company’s future and how they fit into it is not enough for most people. You have to start winning before they’ll really believe and be willing to give it their all.

Organizations don’t change gears. People do. If you want them to move fast on executing a new strategy, they’ll need to first see that it works. Small wins that lead to bigger wins are contagious. One by one, then team by team, people catch the virus and want to join in. Suddenly, people are doing less of the things you no longer need done, more of the things you do need done, and supersizing their efforts on things you’ve identified as critical to momentum.

Execution succeeds when everyone can collectively hold two things in sight simultaneously. One, the company’s long-term vision. And two, the short sprint they’re running to create value right now. Make it easy for them. Identify milestones that are small enough to achieve, but big enough to matter. Drive each one to completion, modeling the kind of concentrated focus that drives momentum. Then celebrate⎯and use the energy of each win to fuel the next sprint.


1 Peter Drucker, “The Theory of the Business,” Harvard Business Review, September–October 1994 issue. Accessed August 14, 2017, at https://hbr.org/1994/09/the-theory-of-the-business.
2 Robert Zawacki, Transforming the Mature Information Technology Organization: Reenergizing and Motivating People (Eagle Star Pub., 1995).