“We’re going to turn this program around!” “The suffering of our fans has finally come to an end!” “Let’s make the (insert team name) great again!”
We’ve all heard (or said) it before. That cliché battle cry shouted during the introductory press conference of administrators and coaches everywhere, signifying that the cursed fortunes of their program will finally be lifted. Everybody talks a big game in the beginning, some may even have good ideas, but in the end almost no one actually delivers. Why? Because delivering is hard… really hard.
The essence of strategic planning is looking towards the future to identify a favored position and then working backwards to the current day to figure out how to make it happen. In many ways, we are literally designing the future in which we want our organizations to operate, and then determining the best route to make that vision a reality. While conceptualizing what we want is simple enough, when it comes to actual implementation, our strategic plans are far more likely to fail than succeed for any number of reasons: variability of future events, lack of prospective, inflexibility in our approach.
Above all, the primary reason why most strategic plans never actually come to fruition is because of failure to execute. Your department or organization might have a brilliant strategy or developed an incredibly unique value proposition that you believe gives you a tremendous advantage, but unless you can execute on your intent, your ideas mean absolutely nothing.
Strategic execution is the product of thousands of decisions being made by your employees every day, each one completed in the context of the information you equip them with and challenged by their own personal self-interests. The problems tend to manifest themselves at the onset of any strategic initiative because organizational commitment and buy-in are profoundly lacking in these initial stages, while skepticism remains high. Most strategic plans don’t make it past the first phase because frontline employees and even managers sabotage the process well before its benefits begin to take root within the organization.
Besides, because of the how most university athletic departments are organized – in a top down, centralized manner – the people involved in the actual decision-making part of strategic planning are almost always limited to a key few senior administrators. Those individuals generate the ideas, and then hand them down to their subordinates with the expectation of flawless execution. Yet once it reaches the lower levels of a department, those frontline employees are often not equipped with the knowledge or understanding of how to carry out such plans effectively. Furthermore, as directions and commands make their way down the organizational ladder, their importance becomes diluted, further eroding lower-level employees’ commitment towards the execution of their designated tasks.
The quick and dirty solution to addressing such issues is to restructure your organizational chart in such a way as to allow information to flow better between and across levels. But creating short-term efficiencies in your hierarchy only provides a temporary answer to a far more systemic dysfunction. Most organizations eventually revert to the same (safe) place they started if more pervasive actions are not taken to address the myriad of issues that plague the process. Improving organizational design can and should be part of your ongoing strategic execution process, but is is not a long-term panacea.
Instead, let us focus in on three areas of execution that are critical to the successful realization of any strategic plan, and within our control:
Every employee within the organization must understand why each decision they make and action they take is important.
In an industry like college athletics, in which departments are often understaffed and underfunded, the reasoning behind why certain decisions should and should not be made is often an afterthought. Because everyone is already so overwhelmed with their workload, there are few resources and even less willpower by upper level management to create well defined roles and responsibilities in a strategic planning process. Moreover, as time goes on and people within the department come and go, any infrastructure created to support such definitions tends to deteriorate rapidly. Before long, it becomes almost impossible to know where one person’s accountability to the process begins and another’s ends.
This is exactly the challenge Morgan Burke faced when he took over as director of athletics at Purdue University in 1993. While the Boilermakers had a long history of athletic success, they had fallen on difficult times in the years preceding his arrival. Almost every sports program was underachieving, and administrators and coaches were highly skeptical of Burke’s ability to turn around a struggling college athletics department after he had spent the previous two decades – his entire career – in the private sector at Inland Steel Corporation*.
Before Burke began to implement any turn-around plans, he invited a professor from the business school to meet (on his behalf) with senior administrators and coaches and ask them four key questions: (1) What did they know about Burke? (2) What do they want to know about Burke? (3) What did they want him to know about them? and (4) What did they think he needed to get done to turn the department around?
According to Burke, “The purpose of this exercise was to ensure that everybody within the department understood that they had a voice and that it mattered. Unfortunately, when I asked the professor how the session went, he politely told me that the answers he received had made him conclude that just maybe I was in over my head. Of course, I wasn’t so easily deterred as I could understand why they were so skeptical – after all I had little experience in sports management, nor had I yet built any sort of relationship with most of them people. That’s why not only did I take the time to address each one of their questions, but I also took the opportunity to ask each person to give me a list of ways that we would be able to hold each other accountable in the coming year.”
Burke’s system of transparent and reciprocal accountability didn’t stop there – it continued for the next 25 years. Every year he would sit down with his coaches and administrators and ask them for a list of five things they needed to accomplish (beyond winning games) from a personal standpoint as well as from their overall role within the athletics department. Not only did Burke hold each of his staffers personally accountable for those goals, but he went a step further: when strategic plans were formulated, each senior administrator was designated a process owner of a piece of that plan, and part of their responsibility was making sure that their subordinates personal goals were in continuous alignment with the overall departments goals. Moreover, each year the department would publish a tally of how many people hit their goals so to create a benchmark for both individual and department performance.
Burke created an arrangement in which his employees kept each other accountable, and in turn, insured that the no one ever lost sight of the importance of their role – no matter how small – in executing the department’s plan.
Once a decision is made, it shouldn’t be second-guessed.
A key component of strategic execution is organizational buy-in; insuring the commitment of process owners and frontline employees alike is an absolute necessity if a plan is going to be shepherded from concept to fruition. That does not mean that we should condition our employees to avoid pointing out deficiencies as they arise. Rather, individual managers (including the CEO or athletics director) should not be stalling execution based off their own opinion, or the opinions of outsiders. A successful strategic plan requires the input of the entire organization, and so does its execution, which is why no one individual should be able to overtly influence the path of that plan, no matter the pressure they might be facing. Instead, managers should collectively examine the path of execution of a strategic plan from time to time, and then come to a determination as to whether the course should be corrected.
“Any lengthy strategic planning process begins with an assessment of the organization at that moment in time,” explains Burke. “But as you move forward, it’s very likely that you and your senior administration will be faced with enormous pressure and push back from several fronts – university leadership, donors, your own coaches and staff. Before you embark on the process, you must be absolutely sure why you’re going to do something and how you’re going to do it, and then promise yourself that no matter what happens you’ll stick to the plan and not wavier,” he adds.
Saying you won’t stall or second guess the process is easy enough, but staying true to your word when your job is on the line is infinitely harder. Burke understood this well during his time at Purdue, and further appreciated that if someone within the department was questioning the process, it was all but guaranteed that the media would too. Worse yet, because they were not privy to the right information, the media would often fill in the gaps with whatever they wanted, which would only serve to sabotage the process even more.
To combat this, Burke and his team set out to prevent the pressure from ever building up by making sure that the local press understood what was happening with the Boilermakers. Every year, they prepared a six-page report that outlined: what was going on within the department, the state of each program, and the overall progress of any plan they were in the process of implementing. Even if there was only bad news to convey, the Boilermakers would be fully transparent. Instead of the media dictating the process by criticizing something they did not fully understand or were not informed about, now they could serve as an ally by helping explain to the greater public why things were being done a certain way.
By eliminating (or at least alleviating) the outside voices of criticism and doubt, Burke could keep himself and his department focused on rowing the boat forward, no matter how rough the waters got.
The organization must be free itself of barriers to communication.
Arguably the biggest threat to successful strategic planning are organizational boundaries; when employees can’t communicate because of silos and information doesn’t reach those that need it most, it becomes nearly impossible to execute on just about anything. Not only does your organization essentially give up any efficiencies and best practices you may have by erecting barriers to communication, but some of its worst effects only manifest themselves far later in the process. It will be highly likely that senior leadership will be ill equipped to deal with any problems that arise in the future because they will never have been given a full picture of the department’s operations as they moved up its hierarchy.
After spending some three decades running successful companies in the private sector, Eastern Kentucky director of athletics Stephen Lochmueller has come to understand the disastrous effects organizational silos can have on executing a promising strategic plan.
Per Lochmueller, “The worst part about silos is not even realizing the things you don’t know that you don’t know. When boundaries are high and people are isolated from one another, you’re likely to never be made aware a problem exists within your organization before it’s far too late to fix it. It’s easy to confuse inefficiencies in your operations on lack of training or the inability for some of your employees to get along, but that’s more a symptom of soils rather than the cause. And as communication continues to break down and your employees become frustrated as to why you can’t fix (or even find) the problems, they will begin to resent you.
Both Lochmueller and Burke have deployed similar tactics to help break-through organizational barriers during strategic deployment. They are best defined as a hybrid between the utilization of process owners to drive a project forward, coupled with a realignment of organizational command from vertical top-down structure to that of a horizontal cross-functional one. That means that instead of senior level administrator being responsible for the oversight of a project function, instead individual department heads are appointed to ensure that: 1) each person under their auspice is clear about their role in the process, 2) there is unified agreement as to what that group needs to accomplish their specific role, and 3) any issues and concerns are then shared with other process leaders and address collectively. This approach can and must be taken at all levels of the organization, from the ticket takers and groundskeepers to the athletic director themselves.
There is little question that execution is an enormous challenge. Even the most successful athletic departments struggle to take strategic ideas and transform them into actual action. They have come to learn that simply moving around names on an organizational chart or attempting to motivate their employees is not enough to insure proper execution of strategic processes. Instead, they focus on equipping their employees with the knowledge of why they are a key part of the execution process, and then providing them with the information and resources necessary to do just that.
*For some prospective, Inland Steel Corporation is now part ArcelorMittal S.A, a Luxembourg based multinational steel company which ranks 108th in the 2016 Fortune Global 500 ranking of the world’s biggest corporations. In 2015 the company had $64 billion in revenues, which is approximately five times the total money spent on college athletics during the same year.