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Execution risk: why business continuity strategies sometimes fail

When it comes to business continuity, developing a strategy is often the focus of efforts; but what actually counts is execution. Campbell Macpherson looks at why strategies fail and what organizations can do to ensure success in this area.

‘Predicting rain doesn’t count. Building arks does.’ This has become known as ‘Noah’s Rule’ – and is one of Warren Buffet’s best quotes. In other words: having an opinion is easy. Planning is challenging. But execution is everything.

It doesn’t matter how innovative, clever or expensive your strategy may be. Unless your organization is ready, willing and able to deliver it – it will all have been a complete waste of time.

The Word Economic Forum has identified five key non-financial risks: economic, environmental, geopolitical, societal and technological risks. However, there is one risk that they seem to have neglected – and it is the most important risk of all: execution risk.

No matter how many ingenious macro-economists, environmental specialists, geo-political analysts, sociology graduates or technology experts you employ – if your organization is not able to turn analysis into action – nothing will happen.

Lessons from the CEO

90 percent of strategies fail due to poor execution. If we look at CEO-driven strategies we can glean some lessons for business continuity strategy development; and look for ways to improve this statistic.

Every CEO has a strategy. It may be clear and it may be eminently achievable. Yet nine times out of ten, it is not delivered. The CEO’s biggest challenge is not formulating the strategy. It is getting their organization to execute it.

So why do most strategies fail? Thousands of business pages have been dedicated to answering this rather straightforward question, but in my experience it boils down to four main reasons:

  • Lack of genuine commitment from the top;
  • Insufficient engagement with managers and key influencers;
  • Poor communication;
  • The absence of a robust strategy execution plan.

Commit. It may not seem so at the time, but developing a strategy is the easy bit. Delivering it is tough. It demands unwavering commitment from every single member of the leadership team. If the leaders aren’t fully aligned and totally committed to the delivery of the strategy, or if they fold at the first sign of resistance, the strategy will never be delivered.

Engage your people. Successful strategies (i.e. strategies that are actually delivered) cannot be developed in a vacuum. The recipe for almost certain failure is for the CEO and one of his/her trusted colleagues to disappear into a room and reappear some days or weeks later with the new strategy à la Moses returning from Mt Sinai with his tablets. No matter how innovative, these strategic pronouncements will rarely be greeted with the rapturous applause and glowing acclaim that the CEO expected. Instead, they will be dismissed with a mixture of thinly-veiled disdain, cynicism, lip service or outright ridicule by the senior managers who were not involved in their development. It is a fact of life with us humans that the earlier we get involved in a project, the more committed we will be in seeing it through to a successful conclusion.

Communicate properly. Effective communication is two-way. When it comes to strategy, too many CEOs rely on ‘broadcast communications’; one-way transmission of messages to the rest of the organization. This is one-way communication and it is woefully insufficient.

Effective communication must be relevant and understood. How often do we pause to check whether the people we are communicating with fully understand the implications of what we are saying and what they now need to do differently? Putting ourselves in the audience’s shoes and making sure the subject matter is relevant to them and phrased in such a way to ensure maximum understanding are critical if we want our people to embrace a new direction. Your people will want to know how this new strategy affects them and they will be asking themselves, “What is in it for me?” They will need answers.

Develop a robust strategy execution plan. This is not a job for your program office. It is a job for the CEO. To many times CEOs define their strategy and effectively step back and ‘let their people get on with it’. This isn’t empowerment, it’s abdication of responsibility. Genuine empowerment involves giving people clear outcomes, clear guidelines, clear actions and clear expectations. Some CEOs are wary of micro-managing their people. This is admirable, but making sure they have a clear strategy execution plan isn’t micro-managing, it is giving them the tools they need to succeed.

The author

Campbell Macpherson is CEO of Change & Strategy International, business adviser, author and speaker. His book, ‘The Change Catalyst: Secrets to Successful and Sustainable Business Change’ is a 2017 Wiley publication and available now on Amazon.



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