Commentary

Why strategies get stuck

Why do so many sound and meticulously planned strategic efforts go awry? A recent study cited in The Economist concluded that 61 percent of organizational strategies underperform -- not because of faulty ideas or poor planning, but as a result of poor execution.

Through conversations with hundreds of cross-functional leaders, CEB has identified what the most successful organizations do differently when implementing a new strategy or change initiative: They mobilize their leaders by ensuring that they are aligned on strategy and are able to focus effort on related activities.

In effect, the best organizations go beyond establishing buy-in and an understanding of strategy by unlocking employees' capacity to execute.

The gap between strategy and execution is a challenge in both the private and public sectors. However, the federal government faces an additional risk that will intensify the challenge in the years ahead. Based on our analysis of 2014 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey results, 48 percent of Senior Executive Service members plan to retire in the next five years. Furthermore, we expect to see a spike in leadership transitions in the next 24 months as executives anticipate the end of the Obama administration.

Key executive sponsors and leaders -- those who built the vision and path forward for positive change -- will leave the federal workforce. As a result, strategic initiatives could stall and years of investment and hard work could be at risk.

Additionally, as federal agencies continue efforts to enhance evidence-based decision-making and performance management, they will face increasing pressure to link strategic plans to demonstrated results. Many programs that fail to show progress on strategic goals and objectives will come under additional scrutiny and face an uncertain future as budgets continue to shrink.

Luckily, there are steps that agencies can take to ensure that they continue to make progress on strategic initiatives:

  1. Manage leadership alignment as a continuous process. Rather than taking a room full of head nods as leadership commitment, agencies must focus on generating lasting leadership team alignment. Instead of simply communicating the importance of new strategies, leaders need to actively manage alignment, mitigate resistance to new strategies and continually achieve support across the leadership team. That effort must happen continuously, not just once a year at an off-site leadership meeting.
  2. Give program and functional leaders the authority to stop projects. Leaders need to make judgment calls about what initiatives to cut in order to free the capacity and mental bandwidth necessary to execute something new. High-performing agencies give their leaders permission to decide what to stop doing so they can quickly focus their managerial capacity and resources on new strategic initiatives.
  3. Eliminate misaligned assumptions and legacy behaviors. Managers across the agency, but particularly those on the frontlines, must model and enable new behaviors to drive better, more sustained effort on new strategic objectives. The best agencies continuously unlock employee capacity and motivate ongoing effort by providing managers with the tools they need to eliminate legacy behaviors that do not directly support the new strategy.

As leadership transitions continue to take center stage, agencies must enable employees to rally around strategic initiatives. Failing to do so could result in months or even years of costly strategy derailment, which could ultimately put mission achievement at risk.

By creating a workforce where leaders and employees are aligned around achieving strategic goals, agencies will reap the benefits of a highly engaged and productive workforce with the ability to successfully achieve targeted results and outcomes.

About the Author

Brian Gagnon is a senior director at CEB.

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