A recent article in Harvard Business Review, Why Strategy Execution Unravels—and What to Do About It, written by Donald Sull, Rebecca Homkes, and Charles Sill demystifies the beliefs we hold about how to implement strategic thinking or planning. Here are the five myths the authors discuss and demystify.
Myth 1: Execution equals alignment
The authors point out that typically leaders in charge of implementing strategic plans organize objectives and create a scorecard approach to tracking progress. Their goal is to keep alignment of activities and objectives throughout the organization. They indicate that their research supports the fact that organizations approaching strategic thinking this way have sound and coherent processes in place. Their question is why then do most companies struggle with implementation of strategies? They believe the answer lies in lack of coordination across units or departments in an organization. Thirty percent of leaders surveyed believe that lack of coordination across units is at the center of strategic failure.
In schools, this could look like a strategic plan that is not well-coordinated across divisions or is only being implemented with fidelity in one department within the school, while being ignored in another department.
Myth 2: Execution Means Sticking to the Plan
In many strategic plans there are elaborate action steps that spell out exactly how the plan is carried out and who is responsible. Again, the authors point out that having a detailed plan is not a bad idea, but religiously sticking to the plan may not get the organization to the promise land. The authors write, “managers and employees at every level need to adapt to fact on the gourd, surmount unexpected obstacles and take advantage of fleeting opportunities.”  Successful implementation of strategies requires that an organization adapt to information in real-time, “seize opportunities that support the strategy.”  The concept they promote in their article is that organizations need to be agile while in the midst of strategic implementation. Leaders have to be able to “read the tea leaves” and adjust to data coming in to the organization about how things are going. Adjust strategic thinking based on incoming data if it seems important.
In schools, the ability to be agile requires that we collect real-time data to inform us of our users’ experiences so that we can make adjustments to our strategic thinking. Do we collect enough data about student experiences in school? Do we collect data from parents? If we do, are we prepared to objectively analyze it and adjust our approach to better meet the needs of all students?
Myth 3: Communication equals Understanding
When organizations are in a strategic frame of mind, they often communicate their direction in all kinds of ways. They communicate about their strategic priorities extensively within the organization, as well as externally to their constituents. In their research, the authors have discovered that communication, the amount and quality of it, is usually not the problem. What they have found is that most people within the organization when surveyed, are unable to explain what the strategic priorities are? “Not only are strategic objectives poorly understood, but they often seem unrelated to one another and disconnected from the overall strategy.”  The point being that many people within an organization do not understand the big picture, nor do they understand the basic structure of the strategic framework. The authors suggest that we should not measure the effectiveness of our communication of strategies through number of inputs (like emails), but we should measure it through the ability of internal and external stakeholders to express their understanding of the organization’s strategic vision.
At Westminster Schools, we have a very detailed and elegant strategic plan (click here) that is in its third year of implementation. There are two parts to the plan: (1) the Learning for Life Vision; and (2) For College and for Life (the plan itself). In addition, we have been working on a research study with The Center for Education Integrating Science, Math and Computing (CEISMC) at the Georgia Institute of Technology. CEISMC has been our partner for three years studying the impact of our strategic initiatives on student learning and faculty development. Click here for an explanation of our work with CEISMC. This partnership is a bold and courageous attempt by Westminster to get reliable and actionable data on whether we are hitting our mark.
One of the preliminary results of their study is that many faculty on campus report that they know very little about our strategic planning process. The implication is that we think we have communicated the vision and direction of our work very well, but the reality is that many faculty do not understand the plan or what is expected. Communication does not necessarily result in understanding! Communication to disseminate is different from communication for understanding. In successful strategic implementation we want to execute for the later, therefore, we need activities that build understanding of strategic priorities, and then we need to measure for whether we achieve those outcomes.
What do you see in your schools?
Myth 4: A Performance Culture Drives Execution
The authors discuss the idea that in many organizations people are rewarded for performance, how well they do their jobs or how well they execute strategic activities. Their data suggest that many organizations struggle with this idea of rewarding performance or not rewarding underperformance. “A majority of the companies we have studies deal action (33%), address underperformance inconsistently (34%) or tolerate poor performance (11%).  It is a myth that “high performance leads to successful execution.” They point out that “a culture that supports execution must recognize and reward other things as well, such as agility, teamwork, and ambition.”  Do we place enough emphasis on rewarding people in our organizations that can successfully adapt to changes? Adaptive people are generally people who are willing to experiment or take risks?
In schools do we reward our faculty who are risk takers? Do we promote those faculty that show a high capacity for responding to changing times? Faculty who experiment with new ways of teaching to meet the needs of all learners are likely to be faculty who will try to understand and integrate the school’s strategic direction into their classroom practice. Do we reward these people for these skills, communicating to the broader culture that we value this approach?
Myth 5: Execution Should be Driven from the Top
In the past, we thought it was up to strong, visionary leaders to single-handedly move organizations through their strategic plans. The authors write, “Top-down execution has drawbacks in addition to the risk of unraveling after the departure of a strong CEO.”  They suggest that as strategic thinking becomes more complicated in a globally-connected world, an organization’s adaptation to change requires orchestrating complex decisions at all levels. Decisions are being made both vertically and horizontally within the organization. The authors believe that “concentrating power at the top may boost performance in the short-term, but it degrades an organization’s capacity to execute over the long-term.”  The goal is to build the capacity of people throughout the organization to understand the strategic vision and work collaboratively in support of its implementation. They advocate a distributed leadership model as a way to promote strategic execution. What drives success from their perspective is if “execution is driven from the middle, and guided from the top.” 
In schools, this means that we must invest in the leadership of classroom teachers. Without their support, involvement, and critical eye it is likely that strategic implementation will falter. What does school look like if leadership is distributed to faculty for executing the strategic vision of a school? What does their day-to-day life look like? Are they working harder than usual or are they working smarter? What type of support do they need from their administrative team to be successful in their implementation? The concept of collective leadership rather than individual leadership is promoted by Nick Petrie in his article, Future Trends in Leadership Development. I reported on his work in a previous blog post (click here).
If we address this five myths by designing strategic solutions that foster agility, distributing leadership, rewarding qualities other than performance, communicate for understanding of the vision, and coordinate both vertically and horizontally within our organizations, we will optimize for successful implementation of our strategic initiatives.
 Why Strategy Execution Unravels–and What to Do About It?, by Donald Sull, Rebecca Homkes, and Charles Sull, Harvard Business Review, March 2015, page 61.
 ibid, page 61.
 ibid, page 63.
 ibid, page 64.
 ibid, page 64.
 ibid, page 65.
 ibid, page 65.
 ibid, page 66.