Good Plans vs. Good Execution—Which Needs the Most Attention?

What’s the bigger challenge—coming up with good plans or executing those plans?

Performance Planning GridThat’s the question I was looking to answer when I asked 700 webinar participants what they experienced most often in their organizations.

I showed them a 2×2 grid with Plan along one axis and Execution along the other. I asked the participants to identify where they saw initiatives ending up in their organizations. More than 375 people responded. Here’s where they located most initiatives in their experience:

Bad Plan – Good Execution (13%) 
Good Plan – Good Execution (4%) 
Bad Plan – Bad Execution (8%) 
Good Plan – Bad Execution (74%)

The problem, as this group saw it, was execution.

Are these numbers unusual?  No. In Navigating Change: How CEOs, Top Teams, and Boards Steer Transformation, authors Donald Hambrick, David Nadler, and Michael Tushman reported similar research numbers with 70 percent of their respondents also falling into the category of Good Plan – Bad Execution.

What does it mean?

Planning and strategic thinking get things started, but it’s in executing that we find the greatest opportunities for improvement. When you look at organizations, you frequently see the vestiges of prior intentions—evidence of previous flavors of the month. But execution is what it’s all about.  Unexecuted plans are a waste of time … they accomplish  squat.

Execution is people. It’s fixing little things in the plan, and sometimes big things. People are the implementers who can see those things.

But how do you get people on board with embracing a plan and working with it, or refining it as necessary, to bring it through to a successful conclusion?   People—particularly powerful people—may be sensitive to others suggesting changes.  Conversely, people might be reluctant to rock the boat when dealing with a plan put forward or supported  by a senior executive. But that is exactly what is necessary if you want to successfully beat the odds identified in the grid above.

3 ways to improve execution

Here are three ways you can improve the odds of successful implementation with your next initiative:

  1. Include street-wise operators in the planning group. We need real-world thinking when we plan. Lack of reality = little to no execution.
  2. Hold people accountable for making the plan work. Measure against standards that are appropriate for the initiative.
  3. Establish crystal-clear norms around communication. During execution there is no such thing as “better left unsaid.” People who feel threatened by a change may hold back on giving critical feedback or recommending fixes. Make sure people speak up, and make sure you listen hard when they do. Peter Drucker said that, “The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.”

Think about an initiative currently underway in your organization.  How would you evaluate it in these three areas?  If you can see that conditions are not where they need to be to provide a decent chance for success, encourage people to share this message with others.

On your own teams, recognize someone who identifies a fly in the ointment. Help identify ways to improve implementation of an existing plan. Remove an obstacle to execution.

From a personal perspective, apologize when someone identifies something that should have been included in the original idea. Involve them in helping to fix it. Thank them when they do. Plan how you’ll incorporate what you learn in the next initiative.

Encourage still other people to share the same message. Wash, rinse, repeat. You’ll be glad you did—and the improved execution will show it.

About the author

Dr. Dick Ruhe is a best-selling author, keynote speaker, and senior consulting partner with The Ken Blanchard Companies.

PS: You can experience the entire original webinar by using the following link:

5 thoughts on “Good Plans vs. Good Execution—Which Needs the Most Attention?

  1. Pingback: Good Plans vs. Good Execution—Which Needs the Most Attention? | Developing Leadership for Social Change

  2. I don’t know what’s worse… that 3/4’s of those survey’d think they have a good plan but still have poor execution, or that less than 5% believe they have a good plan and are getting great execution…

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