Scaling Up Strategic Execution How to Bring Your Organization’s Strategic Plans to Life

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As a Scaling Up coach, I have the honor of helping leaders hone their strategic planning skills, and I always find it both rewarding and invigorating. There is nothing, in my humble opinion, that fuels the human spirit more than setting a goal, developing a strategy to execute it, and driving toward that goal until it becomes a reality. Pivoting to a properly architected strategy can be an absolute game-changer to a business. Sometimes, however, leaders of Scaling Up companies have a bit of a learning curve when it comes to understanding the level of detail and accountability that is needed to make a strategic plan deliver on its goals.

When it comes to bringing your strategic plan to life—getting to the point where, as Verne Harnish puts it in Scaling Up, “all processes are running without drama and driving industry-leading profitability”—what you need to think about is strategic execution. Strategic execution is the bridge between your plan and the manifested results. This is the stage at which you need to prove your plan: to confirm that the activities that your team has laid out sum up to your goal, and that your executives’ departmental-level plans will do the same.

I developed the Scaling Up 10 Tests of Execution to help CEOs crush their annual and quarterly goals–but to maintain total alignment across your organization also requires some ongoing accountability check-ins. I recommend that during regular reviews with your executives, you use these five points of proof to ensure that they can prove out their plans.

1. Is There Even a Plan?

Pro tip: Check that the plan even exists! It might seem like stating the obvious, but I know from experience that is necessary to get this proof of life! Have you seen the plans that your executives have created, in the flesh? It is not OK for your employees’ plans to exist only in the sanctity of their heads. A plan must be put to paper, and its owner must be able to summarize it briefly and succinctly to you and others. As W. Edwards Deming said, “If you can’t describe the plan or the process to achieve the plan, you don’t know what you are doing!” He also said, “Inspect what you expect.” We as leaders must understand the steps and methodology our executives plan to use to deliver the results expected. Here, your more political executives will play the “trust” card on you. “Don’t you trust me, boss?” President Ronald Reagan’s trust but verify approach is wise here.

Imagine your executives’ plans and their relationship to your overall plan as an elaborate design made of cascading dominoes. You can make almost anything out of dominoes if it is strategically designed and beautifully executed. You could even make a version of the Mona Lisa out of dominoes—but only if there is sufficient alignment. Every domino has to be angled perfectly against the lead domino to create a masterpiece. Otherwise, you get a literal flop.

In the grand scheme of things, your lead domino is the Critical Number that you set using the Scaling Up One Page Strategic Plan. Determining this number is the second of the 10 Rockefeller Habits, and it is…well…critical! All your executives’ plans must be aligned with this lead domino. Their plans need to either directly or indirectly support it. If your executives’ plans are not aligned in this way, you may get deep into the quarter before realizing that your organization is off track.

2. Prove the Detail

Ask your executives to share their plans and show their work. Your math teacher didn’t like it when you arrived at an answer without showing your work, and neither should you accept a plan with no detail in it.

I’m a believer in recipe-level plans with SMART goals. Demand this throughout your business. Does your executive’s plan have four to twelve prescriptive steps that drive toward their departmental goal, which is aligned with your annual and/or quarterly goals? A prescriptive approach with multiple prongs is necessary, and if they don’t have that level of detail, they may need some coaching on execution from you.

In your Scaling Up meeting rhythm, dive into the recipe with each executive, i.e., the six to twelve actions or responsibilities that need to be accomplished to achieve the results (think 6 pack or 12 pack!). These should not be vague and should not merely be non-value-adding activities or lists that I call “things and stuff”—things that need to be done but aren’t measurably helping you ascend the mountaintop toward your goal. Looking at their plan, ask them:

  1. What is your specific plan to achieve those results?
  2. Can you take me through how your plan specifically achieves the goal?
  3. Are the plans and the timelines to achieve them documented (for example, in Align/Scaling Up Scoreboard or Metronome)?
  4. Do you believe your plan will achieve the results you want and need??

Every prong and task in their plan should have a tactical purpose and a measurable outcome. The acid test is if they became sick for an extended time, can someone else easily understand and execute their plan? After all, that’s the test of a great recipe!

I have a talented, young, emerging CEO who is fond of saying, “Sometimes you have to let the chili simmer…” That is code for, “Don’t ask to see my team’s plans (they either don’t exist or they are pretty ratty).” You can only let the chili simmer if you have double-checked that all the ingredients from the recipe have been added, and you have ensured that the pot is actually on the back burner and the temperature is turned to low. To extend the recipe analogy further, working a plan is a lot more like making stir-fry than chili. Plans are a lot more active and require your constant attention. And don’t leave that chili unattended on the back burner too long. It will get burnt and stuck on the bottom!

3. Prove They Are Working the Plan

As you go through the plan, you and your executive should take a pencil to each activity and score them from 0–100%, with 100% being fully implemented and zero not being implemented at all. I like to do this in Align/Scaling Up Scoreboard or Metronome with a big-screen review in a conference room or a one-to-one via Zoom. What is great about both these strategic execution tools is that they roll up all of these plans automatically and give an extremely accurate view of whether the plan is tracking as Super Green (right on track), Green, Yellow, or Red. This dramatically cuts down on the time drain and subterfuge of executives politicking that their plans are on track when they are not.

Another advantage of this method is that it gives you an opportunity to discuss any gaps and develop a mini-plan on the spot to get things executing beautifully again. Ask them, “Help me understand…” or “What do you recommend…” and lock in your mutual agreement with the word, “Deal.”

As I mention in my book The A Player, a great employee will want to have this conversation with you. This is the A Player’s chance to shine. When your kid gets an A on a test, she is excited to show it to you. She can’t wait! Everyone else with a lower grade is ducking for cover. And it’s the same with employees. Accountability is fundamental to the A Player. If you ask an A Player to achieve a SMART goal, he will say, “I’ll build a plan.” Given the same goal, a B Player says, “I’ll give it a try.” Whereas a C Player will say, “Just tell me what to do.”

4. Prove the Plan Is On Track and On Time

I call this the “down and distance” part of execution. Executives struggle mightily with the cadence of activities surrounding the execution of a plan and each prong needs to be paced. You need to keep the ball rolling but not overwhelm the team with too much to do at once.

Using an online tool such as Align/Scaling Up Scoreboard or Metronome is great for organizing all your strategic plans. These tools give you a single place where your executives can prove exactly where they are in terms of their plan’s execution and allows them to periodically re-confirm that they are aligned with the higher-level plan for your organization. Either will give you excellent visibility, allowing you not only to see whether tasks are completed on time, but also whether team members are actively interacting with these items. You can see, for example, if a team member has viewed the task within the last seven days. This insight can help you build instant accountability across your organization.

These platforms work great for geographically dispersed, remote teams as your plan is securely stored in the cloud. They are mobile-friendly and take just minutes to update so nobody has an excuse for not updating the progress of their plans.

Lack of accountability is the killer of organizations. B and C Players are not accountable by nature. They hide behind excuses and smokescreens, or as the British say, “pork pies and lies.” A Players love accountability because it gives them an opportunity to showcase their wins.

5. Prove That Their Tactics Will Achieve the Goal

You should be able to see from your executives’ plans and from the intended timing of their execution that they will achieve what they say they will and are aligned with overall objectives. Sometimes proof of that alignment will be quantitative and obvious—for example, “Sell X dollars in gross profit by March 31.” Other departments may play supporting roles that drive toward the same goal.

For example, if an executive in accounting wants to support the sales team’s goal above, she might decide to create a plan for streamlining the process the sales team uses for creating expense reports. Why not enable salespeople to spend less of their valuable time preparing expense reports and more on selling? Building those capabilities should be part of your planning because it all relates back to the lead domino. The accounting department may not be like the quarterback carrying the ball into the end zone, but as Principal McGee says in the movie Grease, “If you can’t be an athlete, be an athletic supporter!” This cheeky saying really resonates with my CEOs as a rallying cry to check alignment.

Do Try This at Home

You can use these simple steps to maintain executional excellence with your team and to ensure accountability throughout your company. At a time when so much in America isn’t working (except Tom Brady), it is fortifying for me as a coach to watch CEOs and their teams take on the challenge of creating a great plan using the Scaling Up tools. The pride they have when they discover, “Hey, this works!” is fantastic to see.

If you don’t think you have quite harnessed the magic of strategic execution yet, fear not. Schedule a coaching session with me and we can talk about how your team’s planning skills are faring.

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