Successful Strategy Execution – Lessons from the Military

It is widely acknowledged that without successful execution the best strategic plans often fail to meet expectations, resulting in wasted capital, reduced morale and organization disruption.  How can organizations bridge the gap between plans & actions and desired outcomes & actual results?

Firstly, it useful to review some of the barriers to successful execution:

  • Strategic plans are often poorly communicated down and across the organization, and lack a suitable strategic rationale;
  • Overt or hidden organizational friction gets in the way of smooth execution. Examples include: personal agendas impacting tasks, competing corporate priorities, poor operational accountability,   turf wars and changing organizational structure; 
  • The right information is not available to the right people at the right time

Companies can learn a lot about strategy execution by studying how militaries perform their missions.  The history of war demonstrates that “no plan survives first contact with the enemy.”  Historically, Generals have had to frequently make plan and resource adjustments as the situation changes, thereby slowing down the overall speed of execution.  To cope with this, many militaries have adopted a concept known as Mission Leadership (ML).  Basically, ML involves 3 core principles based on where and how leadership and decision making is exercised:

  1. Leaders provide and communicate clearly defined, succinct and understood military objectives through their subordinates;  these objective are trackable and are delivered with context;
  2. Leaders allocate resources to accomplish the task, provide dispute resolution and restrict their span of control so not to limit their subordinate’s freedom of action;
  3. Empowered and creative subordinates decide within their delegated freedom and available information how best to achieve the mission in the time allotted.

Corporations and militaries share similar external and internal states.  For example, both types of organizations compete in rapidly-changing environments characterized by a lack of (or imperfect) information, limited resources and internal misalignments.  Because of these similarities and it’s proven success on the battlefield, ML has been adopted by companies as diverse as Pfizer, Walmart and Diageo.

What have these industry leaders learned from ML?

  • The primary role of senior leadership is to identify key strategic priorities and objectives that support the business vision and then find the right combination of people, resources and structure to deliver maximum focus on these objectives;
  • To ensure accountability, the objectives must be measurable, tracked and linked to individual and departmental goals through performance evaluation systems;
  • A higher frequency and simpler style of communication is critical to ensuring alignment;
  • For effective decision making, employees need a clear understanding of personal and departmental operating space and their interdependencies with others;
  • There must be wide distribution of the strategic rationale and other critical pieces of information to guarantee clarity of purpose;
  • Leaders need to be facilitators that create the right environment for success including: delegating decision making down the organization, enabling a risk-friendly culture, stimulating cross-organizational adoption of best practices, and encouraging tactical improvisation for problem solving and stretch performance.

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4 comments so far

  1. DennisVega on

    Your blog is so informative … ..I just bookmarked you….keep up the good work!!!!

    • mitchellosak on

      Thank you for your gracious comments. Looking forward to more of your input.

  2. Robin on

    In addition to three key barriers to strategy execution you highlight we have noticed that with many organizations there is always one unique barrier to that organization that has evolved from its culture and past. It could be an issue with the CEO, or organization structure or staff member’s attitude or…
    i enjoyed your ML reference and would add on one additional observation. No battle can be won without at some stage stopping the planning and starting the attack and then following through. Too many leaders in business lose focus after the initial attack (launch). Leaders must oversee the implementation and ensure that the right actions are being taken and non-value actions are being stopped.

    • mitchellosak on

      Excellent additions to my cursory view, especially the problem of (too little) leadership and an inclination towards the cool (strategy) as opposed the unsexy (implementation). Keep up the prescient comments!

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