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The Public Service: No change without strategy for execution

Published: 
Thursday, November 1, 2012

 

“On March 23, 2012, the Public Service Commission said that for years permanent secretaries have not been submitting performance appraisal reports which are critical for filling thousands of vacancies in the Public Service, resulting in over 8,000 vacancies in the Public Service.” Prof Kenneth Ramchand, a member of the Commission, said: “Week after week, matters have been coming to us, but we have no performance appraisals...we have to do all kinds of contortions,” The Guardian dated March 27, 2012.
 
So much thinking has gone into strategy that it is no longer an intellectual challenge. Strategies can be rented from any consulting firm. (H Mintzberg, The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning, 1994) On leadership development, there is literature in abundance. On innovation, ditto! There are approaches to organisation structure, incentive systems, business process design, re-engineering; methodologies for hiring and promotion; guides to culture change, decentralisation; theories of motivation, core competence, networking and team-building. They are all recipes, written by “chefs,” resulting in fresh vegetables and clean kitchens.
 
But someone has to cook! 
Cooking is about dirty spoons. It is about the discipline of getting things done. It is about execution. Execution is a discipline of its own. Success in large and small organisations, from cricket teams (someone has got to make runs) to General Electric, to the Mafia (their focus is on execution; no pun intended), to bureaucrats the world over, depends on execution. Execution must ride piggyback on every strategy; otherwise the enterprise is vigorously misdirected—like the Public Service. 
 
Execution is the best means of change and transition: better than culture; which is both functional and elusive; better than philosophy. Execution-oriented organisations change faster because they are nearer the situation. Any leader or any organisation must master the discipline of execution: getting things done! “We have all these great people, but some of their results stink. You can have positive energy, energise everyone around you, make hard calls, and still not get over the finish line. Being able to execute is a special and distinct skill—it cannot be taught! It means a person who knows how to put a decision into action and push it forward to completion, through resistance, chaos, or unexpected obstacles. People who can execute know that winning is about results.” (Welsh, Jack, Winning, Pg 87, 2005).
 
Strategy without execution reflects inferior judgment. Carly Fiorina showed good strategic judgment when she decided that Hewlett-Packard should acquire Compaq in 2001; but her efforts were doomed by her failure to execute, costing HP billions of dollars. Fiorina was fired! (Tichy, N & Bennis, W Judgment, Pg 31, 2007). Vast billion-dollar companies: Aetna, AT&T, British Airways, Campbell Soup, Compaq, Gillette, Hewlett-Packard, Lucent Technologies, Motorola, Xerox, Kodak (declared bankrupt) with smart chief executive officers and thousands of talented people, inspiring visions, with the best consultants, often  fail to produce the promised results. The leaders of all these companies, highly regarded when appointed, have all been fired! They failed to deliver! In the year 2000 alone, 40 CEOs of the top 200 companies in Fortune 500’s list were removed. (Useem, M Investor Capitalism, Wharton Business School, 2006).
 
Unlike the Roman College of Cardinals and public servants, CEOs do not have security of tenure. There are companies that deliver—execute—what they promised: General Electric (GE) Jack Welsh CEO fired the least-performing ten per cent of his 657,000 employees worldwide—more than 65,000 workers! The heads of all divisions: finance, aircraft engines, medical appliances, railway equipment, household goods: fridges, heating, air-conditioning, plastics, were instructed to be either first or second in  the world, or they will be shut down. 
 
Household goods were shut down! For CEOs and all others, credibility is all! Others, such as Walmart, now the largest in  the world, Emerson, Southwest Airlines, and Colgate-Palmolive—their strategy is execution!  In organisations (bureaucracies) the gap between promises and results is widely distributed and obvious. It reflects the gap between knowing and doing (J Pfeffer & S Sutton, The Knowing Doing Gap, 2008). Talks about Change (all deterioration is change) are commonplace; Oh! The banality of it all! “Change” has travelled from an achievement, to a hurrah! word; thence to a cliché and held with caressing indulgence. 
 
There have been “change-masters’ advocating: “re-invention’,”   “quantum change,’’ “breakthrough thinking,” “audacious goals,” “learning organisations,” (organisations don’t learn, people do; and they do so idiosyncratically); but without a strategy of execution, it’s all quite pointless! Change can only be secured with execution; it is the missing link between aspiration and results.  As such, it is the major job of the leader. One must maintain the distinction between managers (permanent secretaries) and leaders: managers’ goals arise out of necessities (Getting Things Done). Leaders, on the other hand, adopt active attitudes towards goals and develop intense relationships with employees, their roles are transformational; it’s about “vision” and change. 
 
Disruptive innovation (all innovations are disruptive) by leaders like John Akers at IBM and John Hurd at Hewlett-Packard decisions to break up their companies—and to decentralise them is what leadership is about. (Champny, J & Nohria N, FastForward, 1996). But what precisely is execution? It is not about doing things more effectively, attention to detail, motivating others or benchmarking. 
 
Execution is about keeping three key points in mind: 
• Execution is a discipline, and integral to strategy;
• Execution is the major job of the organisation; 
• Execution must be a core element of an organisation’s culture. (Culture is the way we do things here!). 
Execution is not tactics; while tactics might be central to execution—attack the enemy at 3 am, they have had insufficient sleep, no breakfast, separated from their weapons, and undressed. (Clauswitz, Carl Von, On War, 1928).
 
Take no prisoners
Execution is to seek and destroy the enemy; take no prisoners, as they will detain your advance. Execution must never be confused with tactics. Execution is a process of rigorously discussing the “how and what,” tenaciously following through and ensuring accountability. It must include assessing the organisation’s capabilities, linking strategy to operations and the people who are going to implement the strategy, synchronizing those people and their various disciplines; and linking outcome to reward.
 
Execution is not passive, PowerPoint displays; where outcomes are bland, and participants leave bereft of commitments to action plans they helped to create—the outcome is pooled lethargy! Organisations that execute, prosecute plans with rigour, intensity and depth. Culture becomes energetic. 
 
Execution cannot be delegated; it is the leader’s major job. He must command events, not preside wisely over them. The leader is owner of the processes—not the planners. Planning merely concentrates power and consumes scarce resources; planners create neither paper clips nor a rubberband! Nor human resources nor finance staff. Leadership is more than thinking big —think small: to clean a mile of foul-smelling, disease-ridden drain is preferable to status-seeking talk about “National Development.” Oh! The vanity of it all! 
 
Execution has to be embedded in the reward system and in the norms and behaviour of all. Execution—cooking, not writing recipes —is the bedrock of the organisation. Leaders must look for deviations from managerial tolerances (permanent secretaries’ failure to make annual staff assessments) the gap between the desired and actual outcome; everything from the profit margins and those selected for promotion. 
 
Execution may not sound “sexy,” as say, strategy formation (ego on stilts), and has little to do with resource—resources are always in short supply; that is why it is called “resources!” On “D Day” General Montgomery wanted another seven divisions (100,000 men), Air Marshall Leigh-Mallory, another 11 air squadrons and Admiral Cunningham an additional 12  destroyers (W Churchill, The Gathering Storm), but “D Day” was executed on time! The Leader has to ask:  Are the right people in charge of getting the job done; is their accountability clear, whose collaboration will be required, and the names of those who are accountable and to whom they are accountable.
 
Passive language like “lessons have been learnt” are unacceptable! We want to know “what lessons” precisely, have been learnt; (spell it out) by whom, and to what effect. Execution is about results or it is nothing!
• Measurable goals are more likely to be achieved; what gets measured gets done.
• Avoid “touchy-feely” goals like “to create a good work environment” or to “raise awareness’,” a puerile phrase. “raising awareness about Australia or dengue fever, say, is extravagantly inferior to securing “knowledge” about them. So one is “aware!” Therefore, what “raising awareness” is, is one of those hand-woven statements, bought off the nail. 
• Communicate goals; establish points of responsibility. Name names!
• Follow through until the task is done or becomes irrelevant. 
• Reward achievers—praise, perhaps. Establish and embed a culture of execution. (Kawasaki, G, Reality Check, Penguin, Pg 93). 
• Avoid models of execution. Models are merely selective simplifications. A model is a substitution of a problem which it is specially designed to solve, for the problem which one “actually” faces. Models assume agents, players, “organisms” (psychologists do); not people. Models are constructed by the under-employed; problems emerge. 
 
Using models saves time
Models are simplified imposition upon what might be a complex, messy problem, say, about resource allocation, the location of a new factory, a primary school or a highway; timing, all held together by some ideological cement, urged on by some powerful, partisan group (all groups are partisan) with a severe cultural underpinning, for which there are no “right” answers.
 
Bureaucrats, unlike High Court judges, who must follow precedent, decisions of a superior jurisdiction (stare decisis), must show consistency—are quite differently situated. Every decision is unique; as problems vary, time is short, resources are scarce, attention is diffused, preferences conflict, there is the “clash” of experience, with the present chaos, the mind is recalled to earlier theories and explanations, the teeming thickness of matters at hand, the meshed complications of “reality” and the bunching of priorities. 
 
Yet, one must make “sense” of things and act. Thus it is better to be “right” than to be consistent; “right” here meaning creating a  precedent, combined with execution. To execute is to impose some kind of order upon the chaos of experience. (Prof John Kay, Obliquity, Said Business School, Oxford University, 2011, Pg 126.) 
 
One must avoid inferring “design” from outcome. It is a mistake to make inferences about the relationship between outcome and processes we cannot observe; and do not understand the processes themselves. Napoleon claimed credit (design) for victory at Schon Graben in 1812, but as Tolstoy noted, none of his orders reached his frontline troops, as his riders got lost in the fog of war. (LN Tolstoi, War & Peace, Vol 2, 1921.)  Finally, avoid appointing narcissus committees!
 

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