Why Execution Fails: It’s Not the Problem You’re Solving, It’s How You’re Solving the Problem

Why Execution Fails: It’s Not the Problem You’re Solving, It’s How You’re Solving the Problem

Early in my career I reached the conclusion that every enterprise system implementation project inevitably failed, following the same basic lifecycle: from initial excitement and robust visioning and resourcing at launch, through a prolonged period of molasses-like progress that set in shortly thereafter, to the eventual cancellation and redeployment of resources months (or sometimes years) later. Whether the project was set up for BaaN implementation, business process reengineering, or executing on a corporate knowledge management initiative, every large implementation project I experienced was true to that cycle.

Equipped with a mathematical, pattern-matching mind, it made sense to me that the handful of large projects I had experienced directly could be extrapolated into a general truism: all large corporate projects are doomed to fail. Those failures weren’t the fault of the IT consulting firm I worked for at the time or the very smart people who worked there with me, and they weren’t the fault of the very smart clients we served, so surely the failures had to be chalked up to the nature of enterprise technology projects: They fail.

A few years later, I found myself at IBM in the database lab and there witnessed (and participated in leading) something very different: A very large software development project, staffed with hundreds of people in multiple sites, and a project plan that spanned 18-months or longer…that succeeded, more or less on time and on schedule. Still fairly early in my career, I didn’t have the language or the experience to understand why IBM’s software projects were different from every other kind of technology project I had been involved in.

Today, though, I understand that it was never about what those earlier projects were specifically meant to deliver; it was about the fact that the projects themselves were complex, but approached as if they were merely complicated.

The IBM project was different. IBM had software development down to a science. Step-by-step, repeatable, mechanistic processes could routinely churn out successful products. Software development is complicated, not complex, and as such, the execution of a software development project can be expected to succeed every time if expert developers are involved. The project is complicated because it produces programming for machines, which are complicated and thus completely deterministic.

Enterprise system implementation projects, on the other hand, attempt to program human systems and thus are impacted far more heavily by  human dynamics and people’s willingness / ability to learn and change. They are also inextricably linked to the time, location and context (organizational culture, org structure, power dynamics, customer needs and expectations) of the human system into which the end-product is being deployed.

The projects I witnessed early-on, the ones that failed, followed a mechanistic approach engineered to deliver the same end-product every time, expecting that the human system could be programmed to adapt to the technology and comply accordingly. That approach failed to match the complexity of human systems, which ultimately killed the project.

To get to a successful implementation in a human system, a brand new solution is required every time. Checklists and configurable systems don’t get you brand new solutions.

All that said, the example I started with is about technology implementation projects, but that’s not what this is about. It is about the nature of complexity and the challenge of executing successfully in its midst. Let’s leave the realm of technology now and dig into complex problem-solving and execution in general.

What the Experts Say about Execution in the Face of Complexity

Much thought and authoring has been expended on the topic of failure to execute solutions to complex challenges, whether that solution resembles a strategy or a tactical plan or an implementation roadmap. A few examples of this thinking are cited below as groundwork for some synthesized guidance on what it takes to execute in the face of complexity of any kind.

In HBR’s Why Strategy Execution Unravels—and What to Do About It (Donald Sull, Rebecca Homkes, and Charles Sull, MARCH 2015), the authors identify 5 myths, drawn from a “large-scale project to understand how complex organizations can execute their strategies more effectively”. The 5 myths are:

  1. Execution equals alignment – the myth is that goals aren’t well aligned with incentives; the reality is that it’s a failure to coordinate across functions and units: “Whereas companies have effective processes for cascading goals downward in the organization, their systems for managing horizontal performance commitments lack teeth”.
  2. Execution means sticking to the plan – the myth is that deviations from the strategic plan reflect a lack of discipline that undercuts execution; the reality is that a lack of agility is the major obstacle, preventing managers from coming up with creative solutions to unforeseen problems or runnning with unexpected opportunities.
  3. Communication Equals Understanding – the myth is that relentlessly communicating strategy is a key to success; the reality is that strategic objectives are poorly understood, and they often seem unrelated to one another and disconnected from the overall strategy, even after huge amounts of time communicating strategy.
  4. A Performance Culture Drives Execution – the myth is that a weak performance culture is the root cause of failing to translate strategy into results; the reality is that a culture that supports execution must recognize and reward other things as well, such as agility, teamwork, and ambition. Corporate cultures frequently inhibit honest discussions or fail to foster the coordination that is essential to execution.
  5. Execution Should Be Driven from the Top – the myth is that a heroic CEO perched atop the org chart is most effective at driving execution; the reality is that effective execution in large, complex organizations emerges from countless decisions and actions at all levels (including a group of what they call “distributed leaders” – not only middle managers, but also technical and domain experts who occupy key spots in the informal networks that get things done).

In 20 Reasons Why Strategy Execution Fails, Jeroen Kraaijenbrink provides an inventory of the most important problems that organizations experience when executing their strategy. “Over the past thirty years or so, they boil down to the following list of 20 key problems in strategy execution:

  1. Unclear communication
  2. No or insufficient communication
  3. Lack of commitment
  4. Insufficient or inadequate resources
  5. Isolated and fragmented actions
  6. Ambiguous or conflicting goals
  7. No or unclear strategy
  8. No clear priorities
  9. Ambiguous responsibilities
  10. Lack of performance information
  11. Silo behavior and sub-optimization
  12. Wrong or ineffective culture
  13. Resistance to change
  14. Over-complexity
  15. Insufficient management capabilities
  16. Delay, plans are not met
  17. Budget is exceeded
  18. Lack of middle management support
  19. Strategy is not adapted to changes
  20. Poor leadership.

In the 4 Disciplines of Execution, Chris McChesney and Sean Covey explain that lasting change requires people to alter their behavior, which requires understanding the company goal and how changing their behavior will help achieve it, and/or caring enough about the goal to make whatever change is necessary. The heart of the problem – the biggest foe of change, they say – is “the whirlwind”, the daily tasks that take up your time and drain your creative energy. In their book, they lay out four disciplines you should try to follow to improve your execution and reach your goals. They are:

  1. Focus on the wildly important
  2. Act on the lead measures
  3. Keep a compelling scorecard
  4. Create a cadence of accountability

Why Some Problems Persist

In our own work with large organizations dealing with complexity (since 2002), we have helped leaders use our complexity formula on their defining challenges to achieve clarity on solutions and to mobilize their people for execution. Along the way, we have heard a lot from them about their struggles with execution before engaging with us (there’s often a few failed attempts that pre-date our engagement) and after engaging with us (when we’ve helped them crack the challenge and they’re now into exection).  Based on this ‘field research’ we have identified factors that commonly draw blame for failure to execute:

In fact, while the failure to execute might encompass some or all of these factors, our position is that the root cause can be expressed like this: “It’s not the problem you’re solving, it’s how you’re approaching problem solving.

8 Key Success Factors for Execution in the Complex Domain

So what does all of this say about complexity and execution? First of all, organizations are not very good at this. Secondly, current approaches to execution are floundering. And third, when failure to execute results, there is no shortage of factors to point to.

You can probably see some common themes in the lists cited, but to be much more explicit about those themes, here’s a mashing together of the various factors from these and other sources, into the 8 Key Success Factors for Execution in the Complex Domain:

  1. Sharp focus and commitment to a few clearly identified goals
  2. Clearly identified “distributed leaders” who are tasked with driving execution
  3. Shared understanding amongst “distributed leaders”, cascading effectively to everyone else
  4. Leadership behavior that exemplifies, recognizes and rewards the right behaviors
  5. Involvement of people with the right capabilities from in and around the organization
  6. Keeping score of performance against the right lead measures
  7. Coordination and optimization across siloes
  8. Experimentation, adaptation of plan and redeployment of resources as you learn

Now Here’s Where Things Get Really, Really Interesting

To create the right conditions for successful execution; to satisfy the 8 KSFs during the implementation phase, you need to start much earlier than that; you need to change your approach to how you solve problems, develop solutions and plan for action in the first place. Don’t wait until after, because for many of the KSFs that’s too late. Start at the beginning.

For each factor, you can create the right conditions for execution during problem-solving. And once you have clarity and alignment on the resulting plan, you must remain diligent on those factors. The table below shows how to do both.

It all boils down to taking the right approach to complexity, the problem-solving approach that precedes implementation and creates all the necessary conditions for later success against the 8 Execution KSFs.

When I think back to those technology implementation failures from the early days of my career, I know now what I didn’t know then: They would have had a much greater likelihood of success if they had been recognized and approached as complex challenges from the start. Not mechanistically, not as if the human system in focus was a computer system – rather, by embracing the complexity and human-ness of the challenge being addressed through technology, and engaging all the right people in co-creating the right solution, long before selecting and configuring software. As it was, we were doomed to fail from the start.

The same is true of any complex endeavor. Ignore the nature of complexity at your peril.


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