Strategy execution – it’s consistently one of the biggest challenges businesses face. Harvard Business Review reports that strategic execution was the number one challenge facing 400 surveyed corporate leaders in Asia, Europe, and the United States – top on a list of about 80 issues, including innovation, geopolitical instability, and top-line growth. There are several reasons why strategic execution fails, but the place where it often starts to go wrong is right at the beginning – setting priorities.

The fine-art of setting priorities – it’s not as easy as it sounds

Setting strategic priorities is a seemingly simple task, but there are a few things that even top executives often forget about, when it comes to this.

  • Choose a few priorities, not too many.
  • Make your priorities measurable.
  • Assign the priorities to people who will be accountable for them.
  • Develop the plans behind your priorities.

1. Choose a few priorities – not too many

Michael Dell, Founder of Dell Corporation, said that his most important responsibility as CEO of Dell, was to choose the right priorities. Of the long list of short-term priorities you and your team set in order to reach the long-term goals of the business, an important thing is to choose only a few of them at a time (4 or 5 over a 3 month period), to focus on as priorities. Having too many priorities can lead to a lack of focus, which ultimately makes it more difficult for these priorities to be achieved. Determine, through discussion and debate with your team, if the priorities you’ve set will truly move your business closer to its ultimate destination, better and faster than anything else. Do not underestimate the value of choosing the right priorities it is a step that is very easy to get wrong, and many businesses often do.

2. Make your priorities measurable

Despite many people having heard of SMART goals, it takes considerable effort to set priorities in such a manner. Its often much easier to just go about doing business as usual which, of course, gives you usual business results. Unfortunately, there is no way around it – executing your strategy WILL take considerable effort and will require you to change a lot about how you currently set your priorities.

For example, “Train our salespeople” is a good objective, but it is not specific enough to enable great execution. Which salespeople should be trained? What should they be trained on? By when? What outcome do you hope to achieve?

Case in point how fluffy, non-specific priorities meant no traction on set priorities

The executive team of a client of ours in the education space had given themselves a range of priorities to execute. Unfortunately, these were not clear and measurable – e.g. one of them was to improve sales capabilities and skills. When it came to evaluating progress, it was hard to say definitively, whether the priorities had been achieved or not.

How to know if you have well-defined priorities

One ideally needs to be able to answer with a clear “yes” or “no”, when evaluating whether priorities have been achieved. If the answer is a “Yes, we kind of met it”, it means the priority was not well defined – it was not SMART. If you “kind of” did something, it means you will “kind of” get the result you want. The executive team mentioned above subsequently set goals and priorities that were very specific and measurable. Needless to say, they managed to achieve real, visible outcomes.

3. Assign these priorities to people

Someone needs to take accountability for ensuring that the priorities are met. Remember that there is a difference between accountability and responsibility. Only one person can be held accountable for something (where the buck stops with them), but many people can be responsible for things. Accountability, i.e.: where the buck stops, must be clear on all priorities.

Not assigning a person to specific priority makes it all too easy for people to think that someone else will action it. When assigning your top priorities, consider the workload of your team, and ensure that work is fairly distributed amongst the relevant members of the team. People then need to regularly report back on how they are tracking against these priorities – we will share information on creating a cadence of accountability in the next few articles.

4. Develop the plans behind your priorities

You need to develop plans behind the priorities that will outline exactly how the priorities will be achieved, and how you will know when they’ve been reached – what does success look like? A documented plan forces you to think through all the steps you need to follow to reach your priorities and determine if the timelines you have set are, for example, realistic. Developing plans also allows for visibility on the progress made in achieving the set priorities, which further entrenches accountability and drives execution forward.

Are you unclear of what priorities you need to set for your business to grow and achieve its long-term objectives? Perhaps you need help in driving the execution of these priorities. Contact us for a free one-on-one business assessment. One of our coaches will set up a time to visit you to gain an understanding of your business and offer some advice on how to improve.

By James Hughes, Business Coach at GROW

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