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On Executional Excellence

“How do we get better at executing our strategy?”


Senior teams often find it hard to turn their strategy into projects, and then deliver these projects on time. Why is that?


Leaders aren’t weeders


As a senior leader, you don’t want to be ‘in the weeds’ of every project. So how can you best influence the delivery of your strategy?


Recently, I gave a keynote talk to 50 senior leaders on the topic of ‘executional excellence’. Here are four counter-intuitive tips I shared that can help you.


(If you prefer to watch the video version of this content, click on the image)





1. Be paranoid.


The best project leaders are “paranoid optimists”.


Most of the time you want project leaders who are committed, motivating, make-it-happen types - optimists, in other words.


But this can lead to overconfidence and a lack of openness to the team’s concerns.


So, it is also wise for the leader to occasionally take off the optimist’s rose-tinted spectacles and ask: have we considered all the risks? Have we allowed enough contingency? Are we truly on track?


Practical application: before a project kicks off, run Gary Klein’s pre-mortem with your team.


2. Be a quitter.


Look at the list of projects and initiatives that you’re involved in. Chances are there’s something on the list which has been dying a slow death for some time. It’s bogged down.


People have mentally moved on and are assuming it’s doomed to fail. But no-one has officially put it out of its misery.


Your job can be to put the ‘execution’ into executional excellence and officially kill this project. That way, you can stop it leeching your energy and focus away from more important projects.


Practical application: as a team, organise a retrospective using these principles: make it quick; make it inclusive; start by reviewing the original goals and objectives; and ask “what happened, what did we learn and what do we do about it?”


3. Look backwards.


When one project wraps up, we almost immediately switch our attention to ‘what’s next?’ However, you will be well served to conduct an ‘after action review’ (or ‘retrospective’) to gather key learnings and immediately apply them to your upcoming projects.


Practical application: as a team, organise a retrospective using these principles: make it quick; make it inclusive; start by reviewing the original goals and objectives; discuss the ‘what, so what and now what’: what happened?, why there were variations from the plan?, and now what learnings you can immediately apply?.


4. Be vertically challenged.


In most rooms, there is a Hippo – the ‘highest paid person’s opinion’. The Hippo can create big ripples by anchoring the debate around their point of view.

If you’re the most senior in a room, you need to encourage an environment where people feel able to raise their concerns. Which means allowing people who report to you to challenge your ideas.

I call this being ‘vertically challenged’.

Practical application: ‘leaders speak last’ is a phrase I use. Encourage everyone to share their views; reward all perspectives (not just the ones who agreed with you); listen carefully and make people feel heard.

More ideas on executional excellence…

Executional excellence is harder than it looks.

Leaders don’t like to get into the weeds, but there are other ways of effectively leading execution, including the four tips above.

For more on this topic, you can read part four of my book which tackles the leadership team’s "Practical Intelligence."