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What a leader should know about strategy execution

 

The jerky roll-out of Kenya’s new competency-based education curriculum is a case study in the challenges leaders face when executing strategy. Since the announcement of the proposed new curriculum was made in 2017, the push-and-pull between the Ministry of Education and education stakeholders and parents resulted in several hiccups on the journey to the official roll-out of the curriculum in January 2019.

The Kenyan culture of delays in implementation of new measures or strategies is not unique to the Education sector alone. In both public and private sectors, well-designed strategies have either not seen the light of day or had their implementation severely curtailed. This reveals a key problem: failure to execute.

Leaders across government and in the private sector will identify with the greatest challenge of executing strategy: how to implement necessary changes that require change in human behaviour. This particular challenge is heightened where leaders are caught up in the whirlwind of managing other critical priorities essential to their operations.

We see this clearly in the Ministry of Education’s implementation of the new curriculum which has showcased a struggle to balance delivering on a Jubilee government priority and placating parents and education stakeholders, while still ensuring education standards of quality are still met for the sake of schoolchildren. This is evidenced by CS Amina Mohamed’s remarks before the Senate Education Committee in December 2018, “The design [of the curriculum] is fantastic. The devil is in the details of implementation. We need to have all the stakeholders on board.”

This then begs the question: how can leaders shift from planning and strategy to actual execution of their strategic priorities for the intended results?

Focus

In economics, the law of diminishing returns refers to the point at which the level of profits gained is less than the amount of money or energy invested. In any kind of leadership, this law plays out as the more one tries to do, the less they actually accomplish. In environments that abound with good ideas, it is easy to get side-tracked by side ideas when one should be working on the main one. The temptation then is for leaders to take on more than they or their teams have the capacity to execute.

The first discipline of execution, therefore, is focusing efforts on one or two very important goals instead of giving mediocre effort to several goals. This goal must contain a clearly measurable result and be communicated to the entire team as the goal that matters the most. By focusing on less, a leader can empower their teams to achieve more and drive their organizations forward. Nakumatt Holdings is a case study in how taking on too much, too soon can lead to cash-flow difficulties, losses, and forced restructuring, and why focus is so critical to success.

Leverage

Because every organization is equipped with limited time and resources, it is important to find and use real leverage for great results. To do this, it is important to apply the second discipline of execution which is to give disproportionate focus to lead measures, and less on results or outcomes.

Lead measures are the behaviours or activities that lead to the accomplishment of a goal. For most leaders, this goes against their instincts as they are often measured against results. But because lead measures are predictive in nature and are influenceable, focusing and acting on them means that a leader can close the gap between what they should be doing and what they are actually doing. A classic example in execution of this discipline is Safaricom’s strategy to focus on massive investment in building infrastructure and demand-driven products and innovations that has ultimately led to the desired outcome of being Kenya’s most dominant and profitable telco.

Engagement

The third discipline of execution is engagement. Engagement, here, refers to winning the commitment of team members towards achieving the set goal(s) by moving away from authority-driven compliance to passion-driven commitment by keeping a scoreboard.

Anyone who has participated in a competitive team sport knows the effect a scoreboard has on the performance of the team. Likewise, keeping a compelling scoreboard that everyone can monitor helps the whole team see what adjustments need to be made, and understand the connection between their performance and the goal. Kenya Vision 2030’s website is an example of a scoreboard that tracks progress against milestones and goals, and is accessible to all relevant stakeholders and any Kenyan with internet access.

Effective engagement will necessitate a shift from top-down management to an approach that engages people’s hearts and minds towards a common goal. More than that, it is an authentic way to recognize efforts by different team members and create a strong work culture of winning.

Accountability

Accountability is the fourth discipline of execution, and where the crux of execution happens. Regardless of how great a plan is, it will never see the light of day without accountability and follow through with consistent action. The type of accountability presented here is not just between a team member and their supervisor, but one where all team members are accountable to each other.

When team members see their colleagues consistently following through on their commitments, they learn that the people they work with can be trusted to do the work. Performance will, therefore, improve as team members realize that their individual contributions are significant to the accomplishment of the overall goal.

When combined, these four disciplines will result in better strategy results through a clear, focused and tracking execution process that realizes the shift from planning to doing.

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