Where Implementation Breaks Down

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Why can’t companies get the job done?

By David A. Garvin

Just Say No

David A. Garvin is C. Roland Christensen Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and author or co-author of ten books.

Executives today are enamored of innovation. Many believe that the only way to improve their company’s performance is by producing a steady stream of new products and services, identifying customers’ “pain points” and “jobs to be done” and then fulfilling unmet needs. Apple, with its iMac, iPod, iTunes, iPhone, and iPad, is the poster child for this approach done right.

Innovation is clearly essential if companies are to prosper in the long run. But they must also perform day-to-day. And there, effective implementation is the name of the game. Companies have to be able to deliver on their promises. Yet countless conversations with executives—as well as dozens of case studies I have written on firms in industries as diverse as automobiles, electronics, health care, retailing, and software—lead to the same dispiriting conclusion: Many companies flounder when it comes to executing their plans. They are unable to meet financial and operational targets; unable to roll out carefully constructed marketing, manufacturing, and sales programs; and unable to launch IT systems in a timely, cost-effective manner.

In short, they can’t get the job done.

Why not? Faced with shortfalls in performance, many executives round up the usual set of suspects. “The plan was overly optimistic,” they say. “The new technology didn’t behave as expected.” “The global economy took a turn for the worse.” “Our partners failed to give us the necessary support.” Sound familiar? It’s an all-too-common refrain, with the same underlying message: “It’s not our fault.”

Effective implementation is delivering what is planned or promised; on time, on budget, and at quality; with a minimum of variability; even in the face of unexpected events and contingencies.

There is, however, an alternative explanation—that the problems stem not from an unforeseeable future but from weaknesses in management. Imperfect foresight is not the main culprit—rather, it is flawed execution. Managers have simply not devoted the necessary time and attention to mastering the skills of implementation. In their zealous pursuit of transformation and reinvention, they have short-changed the basic blocking and tackling required to get things done. As Cassius puts it in Julius Caesar: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

Of course, planning and execution cannot always be neatly separated. In practice, the two activities frequently overlap; they are interdependent rather than linear and sequential. Still, identifying the distinctive tasks and challenges of implementation—the final stage of moving an idea, program, or initiative from concept to reality—is important because it allows managers to zero in on the barriers to aligned, effective action and devise ways to overcome them.

Are You Executing?

But first, what do we mean when we say that implementation has been effective? How will managers know it when they see it? Consider the following definition: Effective implementation is delivering what is planned or promised; on time, on budget, and at quality; with a minimum of variability; even in the face of unexpected events and contingencies.

This definition captures four essential truths about implementation. First, it recognizes that success must be measured against pre-established specifications, goals, or design objectives. Skill at getting things done cannot be assessed in a vacuum. Determining whether or not implementation has been effective requires comparing performance to concrete, agreed-upon deliverables—a 10 percent increase in a product’s market share, perhaps, or the training of one hundred electrical engineers in advanced circuit design. Second, the definition emphasizes that successfully delivering what is promised is not enough; the when and how of delivery are equally important. Effective implementation demands timeliness, cost sensitivity, and quality that conforms to standard. An innovative cell phone that provides all promised features but comes to market a year behind schedule does not meet this test (as Research in Motion learned with the BlackBerry 10), nor does a software installation that comes in over budget and is plagued by bugs (as unhappy customers have repeatedly told sellers of ERP systems).garvin3

Third, this definition highlights the importance of consistency as an element of effective implementation. Seldom does the success of a new program or initiative hinge on a single action or a one-time event. Rather, implementation unfolds and takes hold over time, putting a premium on coordination and repetition. Consistency is essential. Managers and employees must take the same actions and repeat the same behaviors time and time again, with limited variation. Otherwise, delivery will be uneven and ineffective. This is especially true of large, multisite organizations—retailers such as Walmart, restaurants such as Wendy’s, and banks such as Wells Fargo. These companies often roll out new initiatives simultaneously at tens or even hundreds of sites, each with subtle differences in design, equipment, and staffing. Yet the expectation is that, despite these differences, every site will introduce the initiative in much the same way and with much the same results. Consistency of execution is therefore a virtue, and excessive variability across sites is a sign of ineffective implementation.

The fourth element of the definition is likely to be the most controversial because it eliminates a popular excuse—that unforeseen events absolve managers from responsibility for implementation shortfalls. Management, as Leonard Sayles notes in Leadership: Managing in Real Organizations, is “a contingency activity; managers act when routines break down, when unanticipated snags appear.” For this reason, they can hardly be given a free pass when actions or events do not go as planned. Resilience—the ability to recover from the unexpected and redirect activities so they still yield desired outcomes—is thus a hallmark of organizations that implement effectively. So too is some degree of foresight and anticipation. While the future is uncertain, many organizations face a range of what Max Bazerman and Michael Watkins dubbed “predictable surprises”—events that are likely to happen but whose precise timing cannot be fixed with certainty. Some department will fail to meet its promised deadlines; some component will not match required specifications; some staff member will call in sick. Imagining and preparing for such contingencies is essential to getting the job done.

Taken together, these four elements create a demanding but workable definition of effective implementation. Note that despite its comprehensiveness, this definition does not equate effectiveness with omniscience on the part of managers, nor does it demand perfect planning. What it does require is an understanding of the ways that even the best laid plans can derail and how those implementation breakdowns can be prevented or overcome.


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