How to have a team that actually executes on goals

Sometimes when people discuss “strategy” breathlessly, I don’t know what to say. Who cares about strategy at some point if you don’t have a team in place that can actually “execute” on the strategy at hand? It’s kind of a tree-falls-in-the-forest concept, no? If an org has a great strategy and the strategy is never actually implemented/executed upon, then did it really have a great strategy? I’d argue the answer is “probably not.”

There’s some new research from UVA’s Darden School of Business on how to maximize teams for execution, and here’s the visual cornerstone of the idea:

4A Model of Strategy Execution

Business people love acronyms and number-letter combos, and this rolls up with that nicely. The model is “4A.” As you can see, it’s:

  • Alignment
  • Activation
  • Ability
  • Architecture

This is a little buzzword-y, and they maybe jammed it up on As so that we had a clean and memorable model, but it definitely has validity. I’ve argued for all this stuff in other blog posts before, so I won’t go too deep into detail here.

There are a couple of core problems, notably:

  • You probably need to start with “alignment,” and a lot of organizations will totally whiff on that step.
  • Some of this is too silo’ed — “ability” is largely things that most orgs have running through HR, but when “ability” intersects “business need,” it’s no longer an HR thing, and that confuses people; similarly, “architecture” is usually an IT/Operations thing, but simplified structures applies to everyone in a business, so that’s a bit confusing to some, I’m sure.
  • “Activation” seems to involve a lot of different people and concepts; hopefully if you’re chasing the 4A model, you don’t have a lot of staff who think they “own a process”

Here’s a key aspect of how to think about all this:

Ironically, we often refer to people and organizations as “resources,” but less as sources of energy. In his work with senior executive teams, Jim Clawson (2012) emphasizes that “leadership is about managing energy, first in yourself and then in those around you.” The same logic applies to strategy execution. Executives need to build the “ability” and “architecture” factors as sources of potentialenergy — the human potential and organizational potential that determine the firm’s capacity to execute. At the same time, they need to foster “alignment” and “activation” as sources of kinetic energy — vitality that propels the firm into action. Alignment energizes performance by focusing and concentrating human resources. Activation energizes execution by channeling and accelerating it toward value-adding activities. Ask any leader with responsibility for strategy execution and he or she will tell you, “Resources are important; managing energy is essential.”

Again, lots of buzzwords in there — but the core principle is that leadership is about managing energy, not about managing resources. People often forget that.

At base, I think this way of thinking about strategy, execution, and day-to-day tasks is kind of a writ-large version of what’s happening in broader organizational development and business circles anyway: we need to shift from a model based on products, processes, and resources to a model based on knowledge, connections, and networks.

Your thoughts?


Ted Bauer

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