Stuck in Execution? Here’s How to Break Free

Posted March 9, 2023 | Leadership |
break free

Are you stuck in execution?

As a leadership coach, I work with many leaders and teams of leaders. The most common leadership problem I see is leaders who are stuck in execution. What do I mean by stuck in execution? Let me give you some examples.

A CTO I was working with had to step out of an important all-day C-level strategy workshop to deal with a production issue. Not a huge production issue, just an issue with a service that was easily rectified. Nothing that needed media statements or corporate damage control. That CTO had 600 people in their organization who could have handled that issue without them. As we discussed it, it became clear that throughout their career, they had always dealt with production issues, first as a developer, then as a team lead and a development manager, and so on. As they grew in seniority, the CTO had built processes that put themselves at the heart of managing any issues. So they spent their time looking after production rather than looking after technical strategy, which, as CTO, was their responsibility. They had trapped themselves in execution.

We can also look at a large organization where we followed a small project from end to end to highlight issues in process. This project was less than a week's work but took four months to deliver because it bounced from team to team, each doing their few hours of work then passing it on to the next team, where it would wait in a queue for days. During those four months there were 16 separate weekly steering committee meetings where very senior people would look at the project and try to escalate the request with the next team to shave off a day or two. The status of that piece of work was studied in minute detail. But at no stage did anyone think to ask, “Why does it take us four months to deliver a week's work? What is it about our processes that makes us so inefficient?” The organization was so completely focused on the status of work that it was ignoring the systemic issues that impacted its ability to deliver. It had trapped itself in execution.

Or consider a CEO who told me that his biggest problem was that he had no time to be a CEO, that he spent all his time fighting fires and dealing with escalations. No one would make a decision without his input because a previous CEO had ruled with a culture of fear and ensured that no one would do anything without his approval. Now the current CEO was trapped in execution by the corporate culture.

Are You Trapped?

Being trapped in execution is amazingly common. Some of it is self-inflicted, like our earlier CTO. They did what so many of us do and continue to act operationally when their role changes to a strategic one. Most of us start our careers in operational roles, and we progress in organizations because we are good at them. There comes a point in our career, however, when our roles stop being operational and become strategic in nature — but we are never shown how to make that transition. So, many of us continue to focus on operational things.

Other times, often because of processes created by past leaders who were stuck in execution, the processes and culture of an organization trap leaders into focusing on execution. Our CEO above was trapped that way; the poor leadership of a past CEO had created a culture that trapped him in execution. Likewise the inefficient organization — everyone was following the process, but the process was entirely focused on execution and took so much time that no one had time for more strategic discussions.

Being stuck in execution is one of the most common problems I see with individual leaders and across whole organizations. Are you one of them? How can you tell? The easiest way is to look at your schedule. How much time do you spend working on:

  • The specific details of a piece of work the organization is doing — a project or program. This usually includes steering committee meetings.

  • Dealing with escalations.

  • Dealing with problems that could be delegated but aren’t.

  • Making decisions that could have been made elsewhere.

  • Firefighting issues.

Compare this to the amount of time you spend working on:

  • Strategy and direction-setting

  • Process improvement

  • Solving systemic issues

  • Capability-building in the organization

  • Developing people

Within the context of your role, what is the appropriate split here? Everyone needs to spend some time in execution, even the CEO, but what’s the right ratio? If your role is an operational one, spending a lot of time in execution is natural, as long as it isn’t all your time and you still have time for things like process improvement. If your role is a strategic one and you are spending most of your time on nonstrategic work, you may well be trapped in execution.

This isn’t to say that execution isn’t important. At the end of the day, the organization needs to deliver and that means executing on strategy. Good execution is vital. But so is good strategy and good process. By focusing too much on execution, we skimp on strategy and we skimp on process improvement. Execution without direction is just aimless busy work. Many organizations execute very well but just get very efficient at wasting money because they are building the wrong things.

It is the role of leaders in the organization to set direction, not just watch over execution. If a leader focuses on one piece of work, they can impact that one piece of work. If they focus on systemic issues, they improve all work in the system. If they focus on strategy and direction-setting, they impact the whole organization.

Escaping the Execution Trap

The good news is that once we realize we are trapped, escape is easy. We have a choice in any conversation we are in, particularly as leaders, on the type of conversation we are going to have. If you find yourself in a steering committee meeting that is all about execution, just asking the right question can elevate it to a process-improvement conversation — “What are the systemic issues holding us back?” would be a good start. “Is this the right work to be doing?” can elevate a project-approval meeting to a conversation about strategic direction.

If you find yourself stuck in execution, the right question can help you break free. Here are some others to try:

  • Who else can handle this?

  • How do we stop this from happening again?

  • Is this taking us in the right direction?

  • How could we make things run more smoothly?

  • Do we have the right skills to do this properly?

  • Have we set the right guiderails to mitigate risk?

  • Have we set ourselves up for success?

Breaking free from the execution trap is often the single biggest thing leaders can do to increase their impact. Even better, if you break yourself free from the execution trap, you also help break the whole organization free.

About The Author
Dave Martin
David Martin is an enterprise and leadership coach and Executive Principal at Elabor8 with expertise in helping organizations big and small deliver outcomes that matter most. He has decades of experience as an Agile practitioner, people manager, leader, and coach across many industries, including healthcare, industrial control, financial services, and telco. In addition to his day job, Mr. Martin coaches and mentors other coaches, Agile… Read More