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Building Teams To Improve Strategy Execution


The concepts of strategic alignment have been around for some time. You probably see this most clearly in staff appraisal processes. Wherever I have worked, my manager has waited to get objectives from his or her manager and so on, and then cascaded objectives to me. The point is that everyone in the organisation, from the CEO to the most junior or personnel, has objectives for the year that hang together to drive the business forward.

And yet…

The idea of strategic alignment might be pretty well embedded in the way that we manage departments and teams, but strategic execution is something different. Being able to effectively reach those goals we have set for ourselves is more of a challenge. But why, when project teams have clear targets and departments know their objectives, is that even a problem?

Donald Sull, Rebecca Homkes and Charles Sull did some research (which was published in Harvard Business Review) into why this was the case. They wanted to find out why strategy didn’t get delivered when the strategic alignment process looks like it is working just fine.

The results were really interesting.

Alignment is not the same as execution

What they found was that managers typically think that aligning everyone behind the same strategic objectives is the answer to making sure that strategy actually gets delivered through projects and tracking business as usual activity against the agreed goals.

That was far from the case at the time of their study, and, I’d argue, is still the case now.

Lining up your business and project teams to understand the strategic goals and their part in reaching them is one thing, but getting the work done is something else entirely. Being succesfully able to complete strategic projects goes far beyond setting and tracking the right targets.

So what is going on?

The researchers found that there’s a trust problem in many organisations.

Unreliable colleagues affect the delivery of strategic projectsadaptive-strategic-execution-training

As project managers, we know that we need to get work done through other people. Unfortunately, not everything we are tasked with managing is within our direct control. That’s partly because we don’t have the skills to do it all, and partly because our job is managing the work and the people, not doing the doing.

Sometimes I think it would be easier if I was able to do all the doing as well because then at least I would be confident it would get done. I’m sure you have been in situations where you may have felt the same!

The researchers uncovered that 84% of managers said they can rely on their immediate colleagues – their boss and their direct reports – to get tasks done. That’s good news. In a project team, it’s nice to know that your project sponsor and immediate core project team have your back. They should be allocated to the project and available with a reasonable amount of certainty, to do the work that you have together allocated.

So far so good. Teams that have confidence in each other are the kind of teams that deliver on their objectives.

But then the researchers looked at whether managers were confident in other departments’ ability to keep their promises and do the work required of them.

Only 9% of managers said they could do that reliably, all the time. Only half thought they could rely on their colleagues in other departments most of the time.


This is a huge area of mistrust and concern, and it means that teams aren’t confident that work will get done. On a project team, this lack of confidence applies to the people who aren’t your core colleagues. You might struggle to get time from business as usual specialist roles like lawyers, contract managers or press officers. You might struggle to get time with subject matter experts whose opinion is needed at one meeting, or people who work in different business teams where your project relies on their business process. An example of this kind of process would be the finance team, where your project purchase orders and invoices go through the company’s standard finance processes. How much time do you waste chasing up payment on behalf of vendors you are using on your project? (Or is that just me?)

Implications of not trusting your colleagues

The researchers concluded that when you can’t rely on colleagues to do their work effectively, you compensate for their poor performance. The workarounds and behaviour you resort to is what ultimately undermines being able to get those projects finished in an effective way. This includes:

  • Duplicating effort, so doing the work another team should be doing because they aren’t doing it or they aren’t doing it properly
  • Delaying project deliverables, because you don’t have what you need in order to move the work on
  • Failing to capitalise on good opportunities because you don’t have the confidence you’ll be able to see it through
  • Letting down customers, because you can’t keep your promises.

This doesn’t look like a very strategically driven organisation to me.

Fixing poor coordination

This problem is so widespread that you can’t pin it on one particular team. It’s not thatStrategy Execution your team is awesome and everyone else in the business is frankly shocking. The other departments probably think they are doing a great job and everyone else is letting them down. So if individual departments are performing fine, the problem lies in the conversations between teams.

Poor coordination between departments is at the root of many of these issues. If you want a simple fix to improve your strategy execution, this would be it. Note that I said simple, not easy! It’s straightforward to understand that conflict between departments and poor handoffs add delay and angst to any project. It’s less straightforward to implement a plan to address those issues.

Around 30% of respondents in this research reported that their great challenge for executing their company’s strategy was the failure to coordinate work across units. Everyone’s work is important. Your loyalty is to your own department and your own tasks is perhaps naturally more important than responding to an email from someone in a different building.

On project teams, fixing the interdepartmental coordination issues is really important. If your core project team members don’t have the backing of their ‘home’ teams, that could cause some serious delays.

Using a project management office to manage cross-department working and multi-disciplinary teams is one consideration. Setting up service levels between teams, promoting cross-functional working and having representatives from all teams on project meetings could also be helpful.

However, being aware of this problem is a large part of the solution. The more you can spot and call out issues with asking for and getting support from other teams, the easier it will be to work constructively with managers so that everyone is pulling together.

What tips do you have for breaking down barriers between departments? Tweet us @2080StrategyEx. We’d love to hear you manage working in a matrix organisation and with the support of your colleagues.


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About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth Harrin
Elizabeth Harrin is a career project and programme manager with over a decade of experience in healthcare and financial services. She's also a content strategist, award-winning blogger and author of several books about project management. Find her online at A Girl's Guide to Project Management

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