Innovation CartoonHatching brilliant ideas for the world’s next big innovation is the easy part.  Bringing those ideas to life — through new software, hardware or services solutions — is the hard part.  That’s exponentially true when it comes to the Internet of Everything because of the extra complexity of connecting people, data, process and things through technology.

In our corporate world, it’s called “execution.”  How an innovation is developed from concept to concrete is just as important as the original brainchild itself.

In my last blog, I focused on catalysts that can fuel innovation 10x:  Inclusion, diversity, inquisitiveness, observation, networking, agility and flexibility – they all fuel innovation.  Here, in part two, I want to share some game-changing insights on execution that I learned from industry leaders at Cisco’s recent “Walk the Talk” Leadership Forum.

First, did you know that two-thirds to three-quarters of large enterprises struggle with execution to implement their strategies?  CEOs of major enterprises in Asia, Europe and the United States surprisingly identified “Executional Excellence” as their No. 1 challenge from a list of 80 issues.  Those trends were highlighted in a recent Harvard Business Review (HBR) article, entitled, “Why Strategy Execution Unravels – and What to Do About It.

Execution Myth Busters.  Recounting the HBR findings in their “5 Myths of Strategy Execution” presentation hosted by Joe Pambianco, Cisco Channel Strategy and Planning Director Hilary Andrews and Sr. Director of Global Partner Marketing, Bridget Bisnette busted common myths about what to do and what not to do during the execution phase, which applies to carrying out a strategy, project or innovation.

HBR Execution MythsMyth No. 1:  Execution Equals Alignment.  We learned that the vast majority of managers in the survey believed that their own teams were well aligned around clear and measurable objectives.  So where does execution break down?  More digging found that problems arise largely because of poor “coordination with other units.”  Vertical alignment within an organization’s team is still important, but it’s probably even more critical to have greater structure to coordinate processes across units, especially in implementing Internet of Things and IoE innovations that involve multiple departments and functions.

Myth No. 2:  Execution Means Sticking to the Plan.  Nearly everyone I know who has overseen big projects believes that it’s essential to have a detailed roadmap of timelines, actions and assignments within a controlled budget.  While this too will always be important, plans that are too rigid end-to-end can be a set up for failure when course corrections are needed.   So many unforeseen variables can occur – volatility in markets, competition, internal organizations, strategies, to name a few – that execution plans should be flexible enough to adjust for almost certain change, including reallocation of funds, people and priorities.

Myth No. 3:  Communication Equals Understanding.  The HBR findings conveyed by our speakers found that key strategies, priorities and roles can get blurred when there are too many communications and messages get changed in midstream – a common occurrence in large organizations.  Over-communication on too many platforms can cause confusion – keep it simple, consistent and impactful.

Myth No. 4:  A Performance Culture Drives Execution.  This sounds like a no brainer.  However, it turns out that if employees are rewarded or promoted for “hitting their numbers” against a performance plan, it limits rewarding traits vital to execution – especially for innovation – such as agility, experimentation, teamwork, ambition or speed.  These characteristics also need to be recognized and encouraged.

Myth No. 5:  Execution Should be Driven from the Top.  Top-down execution doesn’t enable managers closest to the employees and the project to resolve problems or make decisions on their own, according to the findings.  Managers who repeatedly escalate problems higher up eventually lose their ability to work things out with colleagues in other units.  Instead, the authors call for execution decisions to be driven by “distributed leaders”, including middle managers, technical and domain experts.

Beyond these “myth busters,” two other speakers rounded out a day of compelling insights on how best to drive execution.  Cisco’s own Ashley Goodall, Senior Vice President of Leadership and Team Intelligence, underscored the importance of cultivating teamwork to create better outcomes and experiences both for customers and employees.

Innovation SkillsetCultivate Individual Strengths on Teams.  “Teams are at the intersection of what we care about,” Ashley said, urging leaders in the room to vigilantly watch, leverage and check in on the individual strengths and passions of each employee when organizing a team around a project.  Employees perform better when they can tap into their own strengths and motivations.  Goodall also reinforced that weekly “synch ups” with teams may be a leader’s most effective way to match the right person with the right role on a team.

With such a wealth of useful information to take back to my own job, I really appreciated the key message of another great thought leader, Greg McKeown, author of “Essentialism:  The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.”  “Success can become a catalyst for failure,” he said, because successful enterprises often are in a position of having too many options and capabilities to advance, or, what he called, “the undisciplined pursuit of more.”  Again, the message here is to laser focus on a few things exceptionally well, rather than trying to boil the ocean all at once.

Simplicity of focus and communications.  Rewarding innovative approaches.  Assembling the right teams.  Flexible plans allowing for variability.  Horizontal decision-makers.   Coordination across business units and functions.  These are some of the key takeaways that I think can help any enterprise – big or small – to reach execution excellence, and bring those brilliant innovations to life.

What else do you think can help to achieve “execution excellence” while incubating an innovation for market consumption?




Biren Gandhi

Head of Drone Business & Distinguished Strategist

Corporate Strategy Office