Saturday, October 29, 2011

Common Sense to Successful Strategy Execution

The title of this post is a modification to the original, The Secrets to Successful Strategy Execution, originally published in Harvard Business Review in 2008 by Booz & Co. consultants. As the authors noted in the article, "A brilliant strategy, blockbuster product, or breakthrough technology can put you on the competitive map, but solid execution can keep you there."

The authors' research, querying 125,000 employees from over 1,000 companies, identified four fundamental building blocks to create an execution culture. These are:

1.  Clarify Decision Rights. Sometimes called empowerment, this building block is critical for quick, effective decision making. Have you ever worked for a boss that frequently questioned decisions you made? The result: you push the decision up the chain of command so you don't get blamed for mistakes. This behavior is endemic in a dysfunctional organization that requires senior leadership to make even the most mundane decisions. This, in my experience, is a common challenge with community financial institutions (FIs). Clarify the kinds of decisions that managers and rank-and-file can make at every level, and don't second guess those decisions when made. Learn from mistakes, but don't punish or second guess less than optimal decisions. Because we all make them.

2.  Design Information Flows. If we are to push decision rights down the chain of command, we must provide the necessary information to make informed decisions. Clarifying decision rights does not mean creating a culture of winging it. To supplement the culture for successful execution, ensure the needed information flows across organizational silos and up and down the chain of command. This is a challenge in financial institutions, as our silos are Superman strong. For example, in a recent meeting I attended the head of retail banking was pleased at the level of new account acquisition. However, we did profitability measurement that demonstrated the aggregate number of accounts barely budged. Why? Nearly as many accounts closed as were opened. Had Finance shared information with Retail, perhaps this trend could have been uncovered earlier and Retail could have implemented strategies to stem the outflow of customers.

3.  Align Motivators. I would report that this is the easiest to put in place. But I would be wrong. So many FI strategy sessions include revamping their incentive compensation system to align with strategy. I wrote a post specifically about branch incentives on these pages. But FI's remain doggedly attached to compensating on volume versus profitability for lenders, and the traditional holiday bonus for staffers. If you want to create an execution culture, develop incentives that motivate strategy execution.

4.  Change Your Structure. I teach Bank Organizational Structure at two banking schools *yawn*. In those sessions I dream of an FI that organizes according to their strategy versus legacy. FIs are starting to look at their org structures to determine if it inhibits strategy execution, a promising development. But history remains, and change is slow. Take small business banking as an example. Most FIs are struggling to serve this important customer base well because responsibility for service rests squarely between commercial and retail. Small businesses typically don't borrow or use credit cards and home equity loans for early stage funding. Not fertile ground for commercial lenders. Branch bankers are uncomfortable talking about cash management or financing with the small business owner. What results is a confusing web of responsibilities in serving small businesses. If you want a to foster successful strategy execution, ensure your organizational structure is consistent with your strategy.

There you have it! Four common-sense building blocks to create an execution culture. Thankfully, FIs are more often looking to develop strategies for a sustainable future instead of looking only one year down the road through their budget. Executing on such a strategy is critical for us to remain relevant to our customers, our employees, and our communities.

What do you see as critical to successful strategy execution?

~ Jeff

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