Slow Motion Disasters

In a competitive global economy, organisations want to improve their execution. With manufacturing paradigms, organisations often choose to focus on improving the teams doing the work of delivery. Management literature is full of processes and approaches to improve project and other forms of delivery.  However, organisations often fail to diagnose that the causes of poor execution can also lie around the teams and processes of the work.

Story: A Slow Motion Disaster

Yesterday I decided casually to make some sourdough bread because I thought I needed to use my starter again. My starter wasn’t quite ready but I thought it was close enough and I would push on. I was distracted when starting because I had a bit going on in the kitchen and I accidentally added a little too much water. I tried to fix that upfront with more flour and I thought I had it under control. The excess water made the dough loose and sticky and hard to knead.  I convinced myself it would work. When I finally had some shape to the dough, I left it to prove. As the dough proved, I found that it became too sloppy again and I took some steps to fix it but mostly failed.  

Now deep in the process, I tried to push on shaping a loaf into a basket and leaving it to prove overnight. When I turned that loaf out of the basket I no longer had a loaf. I loaded a collapsing mound of sticky dough into the oven hoping against hope it might rise a little in the oven. What came out of the oven was a flat mess. The entire process was a slow motion disaster from the beginning.

The output – half flat and half rounded. Tastes fine.

There are many points in that process where my execution of the sourdough bread failed. However, the bigger challenges were not my techniques of delivery but in the environment and mindsets surrounding the work:

  • I didn’t have a clear reason to start
  • I didn’t get ready to execute properly
  • I didn’t focus exclusively on getting the job done well
  • I was distracted by other goals
  • I kept convincing myself it would work out OK if I kept going
  • I tried to make late changes to fix earlier errors
  • I didn’t have any help, other viewpoints or external checkpoints to make me review my decisions
  • I fell into the sunk cost fallacy trying to finish when I should have seen the failure and started again
  • I felt the need to get the job done, rather than the pressure to do the job well.

Avoiding Slow Motion Disasters

Having been involved in many corporate projects, I have seen organisations experience many of the issues of delivery that I experienced above. These issues shape the ability of the team doing the delivery to manage the project and to succeed.

Talents are variable. Circumstances change. Mistakes will happen. Obstacles will get in the way. The challenge of effective delivery is how to design work so that the job gets done despite the skills, mistakes and the obstacles. That takes organisations to think through the goals, the support and the environment of the project to help those doing the delivery to best adapt to what happens. Process and talent won’t get you there alone.

Effectively delivery demands an environment where:

  • Clear outcomes are set and the outcomes matter most to the team and the stakeholders of the work
  • Work is put into preparation and clearing the path for the team doing the delivery to focus on their work
  • Hard conversations are had and clear choices are made to start, stop or continue based on progress towards the outcomes
  • Accountabilities are clear and teams are supported with autonomy, trust and support to achieve their outcomes around and through challenges
  • Issues are addressed properly as they arise
  • The environment, support and collaboration enables the project to work through issues, to make the needed changes and to pursue the agreed outcomes that define success. 

Poor execution is not a mystery and it is not always the fault of the team’s at work on delivery. Often organisations need to take a hard look at the contributions of leadership, debate, decision making and collaboration in achieving effective execution. Execution is as much an artefact of the culture of an organisation as any other activity.

Execution is a Big Learning challenge

‘Vision without execution is just hallucination’ Thomas Edison

Vision & strategy is nothing without execution. Execution is often presented as a challenge of discipline. However the discipline at the heart of great execution is learning. Organisations need to use Big Learning systems to adaptive lay execute their strategy

Vision & Strategy are Hypotheses

The PowerPoint deck might land on the desk with a reassuring thud. The tables of data, the charts and the pictures explaining the vision and strategy are impressive. No matter how excited your strategy team is their plan is just still a guess.

Competitors don’t sit still. Customers are fickle. You underestimated the effort. You over estimated the upside. Reality is always different when you execute a strategy. Local leaders need to adapt the strategy to the reality they must tackle.

Organisations have tried to enforce stronger execution discipline to prevent this adaptation. They worry that the fragmentation of approach will cause issues. However a disciplined execution of a strategy that is not fit doesn’t add any value and can be disastrous. The learning opportunities for the organisation are lost.

Learning and adapting in coordinated ways throughout the organisation is the art of Big Learning. If your vision and strategy can’t adapt to reality, it is still a hallucination, no matter how widely it is shared. Organisations need to focus less on the discipline and more of the coordination of learning throughout the organisation. Finding effective adaptations and proofs of the strategy at work, changing to align and sharing them widely is what brings a vision to life.