Will that Visionary Plan Work? Better Check with the Board of Execution First

It’s always easier to be a critic and visionary than a doer—that’s age-old wisdom, and most of us have experienced that truth first-hand at some point. The findings of a study released last week by strategy implementation firm BTS confirms the disconnection between the plans of top executives and the ability of the executives’ organizations to fulfill those plans. According to “Cracking the Code: The Secret to Successful Strategy Execution & Lessons for the C-Suite,” a research study based on a global survey of more than 200 executives, senior leaders, and managers conducted by The Economist Intelligence Unit, CEOs are likely to significantly overestimate their company’s ability to execute strategy. One of the problems is CEOs tend to overestimate their managers’ powers of execution. When considering managers’ ability to lead successful execution:

  • 39 percent of CEOs are highly confident
  • 12 percent of other C-suite executives agree with the CEO
  • 24 percent of managers share the same positive outlook of executives and CEOs

You probably need only look at your own organization’s history to know that executives too often are overly optimistic about the ability of the company to carry out their vision. The stumbling point usually seems to be that the CEO and other executives lack an understanding of their employees’ workload and workflow. That lack of understanding leads to the generation of ideas that frequently only work in theory.

For that reason, an idea came to my mind for a board of execution that would deliberate one rung down from the executive board. Top executives would continue to come up with visionary plans, and then, once all the decision-makers agreed on the visionary plans, there would be one more step to go through before an edict about the plan would be transmitted to all employees. The next and final step before the company-wide edict would be the board of execution. This board would be up of maybe a dozen hands-on managers and one employee who works under each of these managers. These 24 people would conduct a hearing or audit of each of the top executive visionary plans, assessing whether they think the plans could be implemented as far as their own workload and workflow is concerned.

To avoid members of the board of execution fearing retribution if they give a negative assessment of the visionary plan, all such assessments would be done in writing, and would be anonymous. Each manager and his or her employee representative would decide together if they thought they could handle the workload and needed changes to workflow necessitated by the visionary plan and then would simply write “yes” or “no” on a sheet of paper or type it online, along, possibly (if it wouldn’t hurt anonymity), with a brief explanation of what any obstacles to execution would be.

A process could be imposed by which the executive board would be forced to let the board of directors know the determination of the board of execution—whether yes or no—before they could go forward with large-scale plans. If the board of execution said, “No,” then the executives would have to justify to the board of directors why they still wanted to go forward—why going forward still seemed like a prudent thing to do. Who knows? Maybe they might once in a while have a good reason for pushing forward against the judgment of those who would have to execute the plans. For instance, maybe there is an important legal reason for making the visionary change they want to make, or maybe they feel it is so important for the company’s customers and long-term profitability that they have no choice but to at least give it a try. However, ensuring the board of directors knows the company’s hands-on managers and employees are not on board with the idea will give them an idea of how likely the plan is to succeed. The board of directors also might ask that the executives take their plan back to the drawing board, and not throw it away, but tinker with it to make execution more likely. The executives then could resubmit the plan to the board of execution.

On a more positive note, if managers and employees say a plan seems workable and that they buy into execution of the plan, then executives can hold their feet to the fire better in getting it done—“Well, what’s the problem? We checked with you before we did any of this, and you told us you were OK with it and thought you could get it done,” disappointed executives could say if their plan looked like it would not be accomplished.

Do you have any ideas you could share for creating a way for companies to assess the viability of executive visionary plans?