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What Does It Really Take to Get Things Done?

Finally, research shows why cross-functional collaboration is so important.

A recent survey of 400 global company CEOs found that executing their firm’s strategy heads their list of challenges. Related studies show two-thirds to three-quarters of large organizations struggle to implement their strategies. What these studies found sounds very familiar to what seems to occur in government, as well.

I’ve been writing about the importance of cross-functional collaboration for years—within an agency, across agencies, across levels of government. But a recent Harvard Business Review article on strategy execution finally puts a spotlight on the criticality of cross-functional collaboration in getting things done. Donald Sull, Rebecca Homkes, and Charles Sull surveyed 7,600 managers in 262 companies in 30 different industries over the past five years on how they execute their organizations’ strategies. By comparing what managers and leaders believe drives strategy in their companies vs. what they actually did during their workday, these researchers identified a series of myths, such as: Successful execution is driven by ensuring alignment with goals.

The Belief

Before they took the survey, managers were asked what they believed contributed the most to successful strategy execution. Their responses were consistent: “The steps typically consist of translating strategy into objectives, cascading those objectives down the hierarchy, measuring progress, and rewarding performance.” When the researchers asked managers what they would do to do this, “the executives cite tools, such as management by objectives and the balanced scorecard, that are designed to increase alignment between activities and strategy up and down the chain of command.”

Interestingly, in the companies the researchers studied, these tools were being employed effectively, yet the companies still struggled to deliver on their strategies. To find out why, the researchers asked managers an additional question: How frequently could they count on others to deliver on their promises?

The Reality

The researchers found that 84 percent of managers reported that they could rely on their bosses or direct reports. However, only 9 percent said they could consistently rely on colleagues in other functions and units—and only half of managers said they could rely on them “most of the time.” This weak link was on par with their reliance on external partners, such as distributors and suppliers.

So then what happens? “When managers cannot rely on colleagues in other functions and units, they compensate with a host of dysfunctional behaviors that undermine execution: They duplicate effort, let promises to customers slip, delay their deliverable, or pass up attractive opportunities.”

The researchers also found that the failure to collaborate across organizational boundaries led to conflicts, which were “handled badly two times out of three.”

“When asked to identify the single greatest challenge to executing their company’s strategy, 30 percent cite failure to coordinate across units . . . Managers also say they are three times more likely to miss performance commitments because of insufficient support from other units than because of their own team’s failure to deliver.”

The researchers conclude: “Whereas companies have effective processes for cascading goals downward in the organization, their systems for managing horizontal performance commitments lack teeth.” They found that 80 percent of the companies they surveyed have cross-functional committees to ostensibly coordinate activities, only 20 percent of managers thought these systems worked well.

So, some of the problems many in government thought were unique to bureaucracy turns out to be a challenge in the private sector as well—it’s not about more “strategy alignment and communication”—it’s about learning ways to work effectively across boundaries.

(Image via arka38/Shutterstock.com)

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