Note: I wrote this about 4 years ago but am again working with a client on strategy execution and it is a good reminder, for me as well as others.
Obstacles are what you see when you take your eyes off the goal. -Vince Lombardi
I live in the UK and one of the many traditions at Christmas dinner is the Christmas “cracker”. Essentially this is a short tube filled with prizes and trinkets, wrapped in colourful paper and looking much like an elongated piece of wrapped candy with the ends sticking out. Maybe a picture will help.
Anyway, everyone sits around the table and takes one end of the other person’s cracker and we all pull, to which the crackers explode with a bang and out come the surprises. No matter how many times I have participated in this holiday ritual I always cheer and clap along with everyone else as the kids, and adults, scramble to see what was inside. The usual contents are small party favors, paper crowns, whistles and other plastic goodies. Great fun.
This year one of the crackers revealed the famous T-puzzle, much to the chagrin of the kids who hadn’t seen it before. The kids all worked on it, as a group and taking turns but couldn’t come up with the solution.
This morning as I sat with my cup of coffee and while everyone else was in bed sleeping off the exhaustive joy of the Christmas festivities, I picked up the T-puzzle pieces and began playing with it. Being in the midst of a strategy road-mapping and deployment assignment for the past three months with a large US company, I couldn’t help but see a useful analogy in this classic puzzle.
Once the work of laying out a strategy map is nearing completion the inevitable happens as the participants stand back and see for the first time the magnitude of the assembled objectives, initiatives, metrics, project plans, and relevant accountabilities that must be delivered. The individual pieces are overwhelming. It is not unusual in a large organisation to have 20-30 strategic initiatives to deliver on, in addition to their daily operational tasks. The overwhelming amount of work dawns on everyone and a mild depression settles over the team as if gravity just got three times stronger and everything is heavier to lift and we seem to be wading through syrup.
So I come back to the T-puzzle. By focusing on the individual shapes it is difficult to see a solution to make the “T” shape. That’s because the pieces of the puzzle are “non-standard” shapes, with various cuts at odd angles. Most strategic initiatives are non-standard as well. If it was easy, we would have done them already and solved the various business problems we currently face.
The secret to the effective delivery on a strategy execution roadmap, I have found, is to work on the pieces while keeping the collective “eye” of the organisation clearly focused on the end result (see previous post on strategy execution). In this case it is our declared strategic intent, the overall goal we have all committed to deliver. The nice thing about a strategy execution roadmap is that the entire “big” picture is clearly laid out, all the connections and dependencies are evident and the path from operational goals to strategic initiatives to overall strategic intent are clear to all. The delivery just takes focus, discipline and teamwork.
The solution to the T-puzzle is similar. By focusing on the end result, the goal, the shapeof a capital T, and not so much on the individual pieces, one begins to try new combinations of potential solutions that aren’t evident when focusing on the pieces alone.
With a little time and effort the solution comes to us and the puzzle is complete. Focusing on the solution makes the obstacles manageable. The same tends to be the case for effective strategy execution.
John R. Childress
Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid
Just published: LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture
PS: John also writes thriller novels