Art of Managing—Moving Beyond A Failure to Execute

OCTOBER 29, 2014


Ram Charan writing in his article, Conquering a Culture of Indecision (found in the HBR 10 Must Reads on Making Smart Decisions collection), offers,“The single greatest cause of corporate under-performance is the failure to execute.”

While there’s a Thanks, Captain Obvious, feeling inherent in Charan’s statement, it’s his explanation that should give most corporate managers a cause to pause and even squirm just a bit.

I paraphrase: Such failures (to execute) usually result from misfires in personal interactions…and it’s these poor personal interactions that perpetuate a culture of indecisiveness.

Charan goes on in this very useful article to focus on the issue of building a culture to promote the right type of honest, robust dialog that leads to decisions.

There’s little doubt in my mind that decisions are the fuel that creates locomotive power in organizations and that high quality dialog leads to better decision-processes. The absence of timely and unified decisions on direction and priorities, not only sustains the status quo, it creates a corporate trap where people act like there feet are encased in cement blocks. Movement slows and when it occurs, it’s disjointed and short-lived.

The lack of healthy dialog manifests itself in a variety of symptoms in an organization, however, there are three key contributors to a failure to execute that jump out at me over and over again in my travels:

1. A wholesale failure of senior leadership…from providing clarity on direction and strategy to actively working on building and reinforcing an environment that promotes accountability for execution, learning and continuous improvement.

2. The absence of an empowered and unified middle-layer of management. While senior leadership is again at fault here, the layer of mangers in the middle controls the work that gets done in a firm and often has more power than it understands or uses in pursuit of execution.

3. The lack of creative or productive tension or dissatisfaction on the part of the entire workforce that good isn’t good enough, AND the belief that they are charged with the task of doing something about it.


While it’s easy and appropriate to indict senior management for all three of these contributors to poor performance, the issues tend to be more sins of omission than commission.

Most senior leaders care about their firms, their teams and their results and spend their time working hard in the business. And most middle managers work extraordinarily hard to keep things moving, often while coping with being under-staffed and operating in a state of uncertainty over the bigger picture of the firm and its strategies.

Resolving the failure to execute problem is much more like a long-term fitness program than a quick weight-loss diet. It involves changing the thinking about what’s most important for organizational health and success and doing the hard work of developing new habits that support continuous improvement.

It’s the hardest work senior leaders and managers will ever do.

7 New Habits to Help You Move Beyond a Failure to Execute:

1. Start and sustain a company-wide dialog over direction. Everyone who walks through the door in the morning must know where the firm is headed and why. The lack of context for direction and specifically for how team and functional priorities connect to corporate priorities is a guarantee of poor execution. Fixing this starts with the right, regular conversations.

2. Work hard to link functional and individual goals to the corporate goals. While this sounds like some advice from our friend, Captain Obvious, it’s more the norm that I find firms where corporate goals are vague and there’s little cohesion between individual and functional goals and corporate direction. The failure to align here guarantees failure.

3. Move faster and smarter. Redefine the operating cadence to reinforce communication on performance and to encourage learning and improvement. Consider applying Agile approaches to your operations meetings, where reinforcement and focus on priorities occurs constantly and the emphasis is on identifying and solving problems. Frequency, speed and focused built upon a foundation of accountability…priceless. End the debating society culture that pervades most operating meetings and focus on talking about what it takes for the firm to win…one decision at a time.

4. If you are the CEO, rethink your role. Seriously. If you signed on for the job…all of this is on you. You control the corporate agenda, you are a major contributor to forming and framing the working environment and you own bringing clarity and direction to confusion. If you’re not the CEO help him/her succeed with these important tasks.

5. Give the customer a chair in every meeting. Literally. A nameplate at the table, a stuffed animal or a cardboard cutout…I don’t care how you remind yourself that the customer is present, just do it. If the focus is on new markets and future strategies, these new…even blank-faced customers must be present as a reminder that no strategy works and no execution plan is worthwhile unless it aims to do something for someone who can pay you for it.

6. Invigorate mid-level management. Help them recognize their critical role in execution success and ensure that senior leaders, give them support to improve instead of giving them hell when things don’t go right. If this layer of talent is weak, top-grade the talent to build strong management here. These are your future senior leaders.

7. Get the whole company involved in the wins and the lessons learned. Build the excitement and creative tension to improve by celebrating and sharing the small and big victories. The workforce at large has to buy into the idea that execution and continuous improvement are their responsibility. Management must bring this to life by ensuring that the heroic efforts, great victories and even challenging lessons are made visible as part of the daily culture of the firm.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

There are no silver bullets or simple solutions for business execution challenges. It’s a journey that starts with senior leadership and all of management focusing on what counts…giving clarity to direction and goals and working non-stop to support the people working hard every day who help you move closer to your goals. It’s good, old-fashioned, grind-it-out hard work. But once it starts to take root in your culture, the habits of winning take over and the work doesn’t seem so hard. Just exhilarating.