Podcast Ep. 140: Aligning Strategy with Execution with Adam Ulery

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Episode Description:

This week, Dan Neumann is joined by a recurrent guest, Adam Ulery, to talk about the importance of aligning strategy with execution as a necessary step to reach the top-level vision at an organization. The lack of alignment between strategy and execution is often seen among leadership teams and portfolio management teams and is manifested in program and delivery teams as well. This deficiency is mostly perceived as a symptom, not realizing that is the root cause.

In this episode, Dan and Adam discuss some of the root causes of the lack of alignment, share strategies to organizations that are lacking alignment, and dive deep into how to measure if a company is moving closer or farther from its strategy in order to enable accountability in every sector of the organization.


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Key Takeaways

  • What does the lack of alignment between strategy and execution look like? 
    • The team is not sure what to work on
    • The team feels like it is not getting clear direction on the objectives
    • Heads of organizations might not be in agreement
    • There are serious consequences as a result of the lack of alignment between teams; one of them is having too much work in process (since the team is not rejecting the job that does not strictly align with the organization’s vision).
  • The root cause for lack of alignment:
    • If there is no strategy, it is impossible to align to it
    • Having a strategy that is not coherent, clear, well written, or there isn’t an understanding on how to execute on it
    • The leadership team doesn’t have a clear understanding of the strategy
    • Sometimes strategies are too broad or too complex to be meaningful
    • Undermining the strategy by executives that don’t agree with it
    • The strategy is not communicated effectively
  • How to begin aligning strategy and execution?
    • First, the organization needs to create a strategy if it doesn’t have one
    • If there is a strategy, make sure it is clear or clarify it
    • Ask yourself: Are we committed to this strategy? Are we executing it?
    • Understanding the deviations from the strategy is part of becoming accountable
    • Celebrate those who show behaviors that prove an alignment with the strategy
  • How does an organization measure if they are moving closer or father away from the strategy to help enable accountability?
    • Establish value-based measures and consistently use them
    • Pay attention to key results, not to the activity
    • Reinforce the collaboration between verticals and horizontals
    • A periodic inspection is necessary
  • What can somebody closer to a team level do in the absence of a clear strategy?
    • Ask questions, be curious, talk openly about this in a productive way
    • Make visible that there is no alignment between strategy and execution

Mentioned in this Episode:

Transcript [This transcript is auto-generated and may not be completely accurate in its depiction of the English language or rules of grammar.]

Intro: [00:03] Welcome to the Agile Coaches’ Corner by AgileThought. The podcast for practitioners and leaders seeking advice to refine the way they work and pave the path to better outcomes. Now here’s your host, coach and agile expert, Dan Neumann.

Dan Neumann: [00:16] Welcome to this episode of the Agile Coaches’ Corner podcast. I’m your host Dan Neumann, and joined by my AgileThought colleague, Adam Ulery today. How are you doing?

Adam Ulery: [00:25] Hey, doing awesome. Thanks for having me on the show again, Dan.

Dan Neumann: [00:28] Well, happy to, right. The last time you were on, we were talking about the difference between being strategic and being tactical and, uh, yeah, you’re good enough. We figured we’d have you back.

Adam Ulery: [00:40] Okay. Thanks. Glad I made the cut.

Dan Neumann: [00:44] Um, but today we’re going to take another angle at strategy and this one is about the importance of aligning strategy with execution.

Adam Ulery: [00:54]
Yeah. I love this topic. It gets something I see quite often when I’m working with leadership teams or when I’m working with teams who are, uh, uh, doing portfolio management. I see it quite often there. Uh, and then I think we, uh, we see it manifested in different ways among program and delivery teams as well. And, and sometimes what we see there is a result of a lack of alignment of strategy to execution, but the people experiencing it on the teams themselves may not realize that’s what it is. They, they can, they can see it as, uh, as symptoms and experience it as symptoms that, that, uh, they, they see happening not realizing that is the root cause. And so those symptoms can look like things like, well, we’re not really sure what to work on, or we’re not getting clear direction about to work on. Um, or it could be things that they don’t even realize is happening. Like we’re working on these things and not realizing that what they’re working on, doesn’t actually align to the top level vision for the organization.

Dan Neumann: [02:14] It’s interesting to think about it in those two levels with, with the portfolio management and then at the program, the delivery team. So you were sharing a couple of examples at the program at delivery team what’s in the product backlog are we is the top of the product backlog. If you’re a scrum team, is that aligned with what the organization thinks are the most important things? So imagine if you’re a team working on, um, an internet app and you’ve got back office things that correspond to activities users do. And if your team is focused on the back office, but that’s not where the constraint is, or that’s not where the value to the organization lies, and you should be improving the experience of your external customers or your external users, you can be doing a lot of working software and just not providing the value to the organization at the time. So is that an example of a misalignment between needs and, and focus area?

Adam Ulery: [03:17]
That’s a great example. And we’ll also see, especially in larger enterprises where there are heads of vertical organizations that may not be aligned, may not even be in good agreement with other heads of organizations. And they’re actually almost working against each other or certainly not working together. And in those cases, it’s almost certain that they’re not aligned to the top level vision at not at the top of their artists, but I mean, the organization, the enterprise’s top level vision. So you can imagine if an organization’s not aligned, uh, how much less effective they will be at achieving their top level vision.

Dan Neumann: [04:12]
You touch on two things there. And they’ll tie back into the portfolio management pieces as we kind of come back around on that in a little bit. One is, is there something to align to, right? You have the two verticals, are they really aligned? Uh, and then there’s, they’ve said they’re aligned publicly, but they might not actually be. I I’ve literally seen a senior leader walk into the room and say, I know we said, we were in agreement about this priority, but I’m telling you, this is what you actually need to be doing. And it was what surprised me was that they were transparent about that. Usually they’re a little more subtle, a little sneaky, the disagreements like whispered about, but this was just right out on the table for all for God and everybody to see. And it was. And how do you expect a team to be effective when you’ve got two senior leaders that are implicitly or explicitly undermining each other and the strategy, or at least the supposed strategy of the company is that there’s a coaching opportunity.

Adam Ulery: [05:19] No kidding. And just think about the ramifications of it. I think that’s what we’re talking about at Dan. I mean, to take sort of a, a fictitious example or, uh, you know, something that, that may not be specifically, uh, true, but is a good way to think about it. Think about a space agency who has a goal to make it to Mars or to the moon, right. And that that’s kind of the top level goal of the organization, but then you’ve got two departments within that who have completely different conflicting goals that don’t align to them getting to the moon and maybe one kind of does, but the other doesn’t at all, or, um, it, it would be in some way, uh, impeding that other one, you can imagine just how much disruption and how much waste and how much friction that will cause to getting to that top level goal.

Dan Neumann: [06:19] Yeah. If you’ve got one group that, you know, wants to, to mine, the moon for resources and a different one that wants to, you know, have a human colony there or whatever, you know, just the, the total lack of alignment is a problem. You mentioned portfolio management. What comes to mind for me as an example of a lack of alignment is so much stuff in the portfolio that the teams are thrashing you too much work in process, you know, just too much of too much attention switching. That’s often for me a lack of strategy and an ability to say no to stuff that doesn’t align with the strategy. And I’m curious what you see.

Adam Ulery: [07:04] Yeah. I see the same and agree a lot of times there’s a problem there with a lack of clarity about what that top level vision that they should be aligned to is, and potentially a lack of discipline to say no to things that don’t strongly align with it. And, and that’s why it’s so important portfolio management for the team who owns that portfolio backlog to be disciplined, to be aligned, to be open and transparent, to be highly collaborative and to really ruthlessly refine that backlog. So only the things that will advance them the most towards that top level vision remain there. I mean, there are going to be lots of good ideas that don’t make it because you can’t afford to do everything. And it fractures your focus. If you’re not focused on those top value items that will advance your strategy the most.

Dan Neumann: [08:12] And, and we’ll, we’ll get to some, some ideas for things to do different. Uh, but on our journey there, let’s touch on some of the root causes that we see to what can be a lack of alignment. Um, and then we’ll get, as we get towards the backend, then, you know, we’ll, provide some ideas, right? It’s not all just doom and gloom and Adam and Dan whining about, you know, this stuff.

Adam Ulery: [08:36] Yeah. Well, sounds good. Dan, let’s start with the most obvious, uh, if there’s no strategy it’s hard to align to it,

Dan Neumann: [08:45]
You don’t say.

Adam Ulery: [08:49] It’s interesting how frequently we will see that, where there’s not a, a formal strategy and oftentimes the strategy may exist in someone’s mind. It may have even been written out in some form of a strategy statement, but, uh, that that’s about it. Uh, people are not aware of it. And, uh, for all practical purposes, it doesn’t exist because people don’t know about it.

Dan Neumann: [09:20] Yeah. So first cost of entry, we, we simply don’t have one or haven’t, you know, we haven’t thought about it. We haven’t formed it. We haven’t put it on a wall somewhere. Um, and then kindred spirits to that is, well, there is one, but it’s only in the brain of the big boss. Right. They haven’t got it out of their head. And even if they got it out of their head and put it in a document, once it’s shuffled away on a SharePoint site and nobody knows where it is and if they do, they don’t look at it anyway. So we might as well lump that all into yeah. Flat out don’t have it.

Adam Ulery: [09:57] Exactly. Um, and then something else that comes to mind is a strategy that isn’t coherent. It’s not clear, uh, perhaps it’s not well written or there isn’t an understanding of how to execute on it. Uh, the, the leadership team doesn’t have a shared understanding of the strategy that that’s a problem as well.

Dan Neumann: [10:24] Right. I think of, uh, strategies that are kind of on two ends of a spectrum. One is it’s too broad to be meaningful. We’re going to go after this market. Well, cool. And what’s going to differentiate us from everybody else going after that market. That’s not a strategy. Uh, and then the other one is just so complex that it’s, it’s hard to wrap one’s brain, right. It’s just, or, or it’s internally incoherent.

Adam Ulery: [10:51] Right and neither one of those, they sort of produced the same problem, right. Teams don’t know how to rally around it. They don’t know how to support it. They don’t know how to align to it or the, or there are differing understandings of how to do that, which is the same problem.

Dan Neumann: [11:08] Right. Because the strategy is we’re talking about, we want the execution to align with it. And I like the term you use there. We want teams to rally to it where we don’t have to do, you know, lead everybody step by step through what they have to do. We want to go there, we’re going to take that hill. And you know, here here’s our strategy. And then go get that hill and there’s teams can inspect and adapt. Yeah. Right,

Adam Ulery: [11:33] Right. Yeah. There is power in that synergy and the joining of forces to advance it, to go after it.

Dan Neumann: [11:44] And then one of the other root causes was, um, what I exposed earlier, which is undermining of the strategy either overtly or covertly, um, by executives who really don’t agree with it.

Adam Ulery: [11:59] Yeah, yeah. Um, exactly. The, your example was really interesting. Most of the time, it’s more, it’s more under the covers

Dan Neumann: [12:12]
Subtle.

Adam Ulery: [12:14]
Yeah. Which in a way is worse because it’s being hidden intentionally undermining. It’s very destructive.

Dan Neumann: [12:24] Yeah. Kind of this, the slow play, if you will. Well, yeah, we’re working on your thing, but we’re not working very hard and we’re not working out very fast, but yeah. It’s in process. We’ll get it to you later.

Adam Ulery: [12:36]
Yeah. It, it’s almost more destructive. It’s harder to identify and address. Um, so yeah, that, that’s tough. And then, um, we talked a little bit about a strategy. That’s not well communicated. And even if you have a great strategy and it is clear, but it’s not well communicated, then teams won’t effectively advance it. They won’t work towards advancing it. It’s hard for them to synchronize, to align to it. And we see this a lot. Um, and I’d say a very high percentage of the time we see it. It’s not intentional. Uh, and, and it’s believed that it was communicated. So what we’re saying here is it’s not communicated effectively. Maybe it’s been spoken, it’s even been shared perhaps in a town hall type meeting even, but something like a strategy needs to be repeatedly, consistently communicated and propagated intentionally through the entire organization, to where people just feel it and live it and understand it. Now that that’s effective communication, that’s much different than, but I’ve told them this 10 times.

Dan Neumann: [14:14]
I’d have to, uh, dusted off with a Google and figure out who to attribute it to. But I think at one point I heard the phrase, you know, the biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it’s happened. And, and I see that, especially with strategies. Well, I told you it three years ago, you know, when you are rushing out of the office for lunch, you know, you shouldn’t know. Yeah.

Adam Ulery: [14:39] Well, I think I was gonna add one more thing. Um, I, I think what happens most often is it has been communicated one way. There’s not a realization that it hasn’t been processed. It hasn’t taken hold. I really think that’s the most common, uh, challenge there. And, um, they, you know, they, there’s a belief that it has been communicated, but in reality, it hasn’t been absorbed.

Dan Neumann: [15:17] I think I’ll just touch on that a little bit with our, our strategy, do difference and make myself a little note and we’ll circle back on that one. But the first thing we might want to do, let’s say Adam, if, if there is a strategy, let’s say

Adam Ulery: [15:32] Create one, let’s create a strategy. So, uh, this isn’t a podcast about how to create a strategy. Uh, you know, you can potentially dive into that in a future podcast with someone perhaps Dan, uh, it’s on the backlog now. Excellent. But, uh, yeah, definitely create a strategy if you don’t have one. And if you do have one, but you’re not sure it’s clear determine that, verify that, and then clarify it, work to clarify the strategy.

Dan Neumann: [16:10] Yeah. So create one, make sure it’s clear. Make sure it’s well understood. Um, and then I think some kind of test for, are we actually committed to this Roe actually executing or are we deviating from the strategy?

Adam Ulery: [16:26] Absolutely. So now we’re putting intentional effort into ensuring there is buy-in and commitment to the strategy, talking about holding each other accountable, and that’s taking it a step further. Now we’re really taking some steps to ensure that not only do people understand it and are aware of it, but they’re committed to it and we’re talking about them being accountable for, uh, for holding to it, for aligning to it. And, and now we’re starting to get into some really good behaviors.

Dan Neumann: [17:04] And that’s where leadership I think really can show through. So giving an accounting for behaviors that look like they don’t align with the strategy is one part of that being curious and really seeking to understand deviations and if they were inappropriate handle that. And then the other part, I think is from an accountability standpoint, when you see great alignment or great examples of people exhibiting behavior that is aligned with the strategy, it’s celebrating those. So leading a little bit by attraction, this is what we’ve been talking about. This is really awesome execution towards the strategy.

Adam Ulery: [17:45] I’m a huge fan of that positive reinforcement and helping people see it in action. Like, Hey, that right there. Great example. That’s, that’s the type of thing we want to see. Let’s celebrate that.

Dan Neumann: [18:00] It’s something about the way you said that made me realize the timeliness of the recognition. You know, don’t jot it in the notebook and at the next annual meeting go back, uh, 11 months ago when team food did this particular thing, it was awesome. It was like, no, right, right now in front of, in front of everybody, let’s do it, do it. There’s power to the timeliness. Um, so strategy seems like, or can seem like a pretty nebulous, um, topic. So how do we measure whether we’re moving closer to, or farther away from our strategy to help enable that accountability?

Adam Ulery: [18:41]
Yeah. So I would say establish some type of value based measures and use them consistently use them. Don’t, uh, establish a metric that would tell you you’re making progress against this and set it on the shelf and look at it once a quarter or half, you know, every, every six months, that sort of thing. Right. Um, the hard work is, uh, establishing a value based measure, which means determining what you can measure that will tell you you’re advancing the strategy, right? That’s the hard work it’s worth the effort. Once you go through establishing those measures, then you’ll want to regularly measure those things, track progress, and have discussions around that to understand. And the point here is learning, right? That’s the, that’s one of the big pieces of value you will take away from this is learning how well we’re advancing our strategy, uh, what things we’re doing that are effective towards that. And also is this a good strategy for us? So you’ll be learning a lot during the one tool I love to use that helps with this is OKRs. So we’ve talked a little bit about objectives and key results off and on. Um, that is a fantastic tool for, for doing this. When, when you set those, uh, key results, this is exactly what you’re doing

Dan Neumann: [20:20] Nice. I, we had an episode, episode, 78 pack with Felipe Castro, and I need to apologize probably for butchering his name. We tried desperately to get me to say it the way people in his country would say it. And I just, I failed. So that’s close enough. I apologize. Uh, but we do a bit of a deep dive on objectives and key results. Or OKRs there. And what I like about it is it’s the strategy, the objective, this is what we’re trying to do. You know, we’re trying to take this hill. And here’s how we know if we’ve taken that hill, here are some measures, some key results that we would expect to see and not focused on activity. It’s not hours spent on the thing it’s focused on outcomes, lives impacted, customers, improved waste, removed, you know, real outcomes if you do it in 15 minutes. Great. If it takes all year. Okay. But it’s not about the activity, it’s about getting an outcome.

Adam Ulery: [21:21]
That’s awesome. And that’s what I mean by value based, right there. Good. A unpacking of that. It’s, it’s really important that we’re not just measuring busy-ness as you, as you correctly stated. And then another advantage of that particular tool. Okay. Ours is, I mean, I kind of refer to that as a framework. I think about it as a framework because, um, not only do you have the objectives and key results, but there’s a, there’s an event cadence. You can set around that and use as a way to stay disciplined about reviewing these things, which we talked about as important and, uh, establishing good communication around them. So if you’re kind of using that OKR framework, it helps you get into a rhythm there and establish this cadence of communication. It’s very important to do that early and often that promotes alignment. Uh, also what you’re doing within that framework is collaborating vertically and horizontally in the organization. So as one group or team or organization within the larger enterprise is setting their objectives and key results or their strategy and measures of the strategy. They’re going to be collaborating with other organizations to stay aligned and to make sure that, Hey, our strategy won’t unintentionally, uh, disrupt you or obstruct you or slow you down or pull against you. Right. We are, we will be aligned here. Right. And is there any way we can set these in such a way that it will actually help each other? So you’re looking for those opportunities looking, uh, to avoid those risks and collaborating across verticals and horizontals as we’re setting these things and then regularly sinking up and, uh, making sure that we’re staying aligned and making progress.

Dan Neumann: [23:29] Yeah. Periodic inspection is and then adaptation as necessary is pretty important. And I think what you were describing with, with OKRs, or with a general strategy, is there needs to be a strategy at the top. And then the strategies that are below it need to be supportive of that larger one. They don’t necessarily, it’s not cascading, we’re not starting with the big one, breaking it down into small chunks and smaller, and everybody just does their piece and it adds back up. We’re saying, here’s the big strategy. And then my strategy might support yours, hopefully, you know, across the organization as well as up and down. So yeah, it’s not about just a central thing that everybody then has to do.

Adam Ulery: [24:10]
Yeah, absolutely. It’s, it’s not at all about that. Breaking it down and making a cascading process. It’s yeah. More, more about alignment. It’s more modular.

Dan Neumann: [24:22] Yeah. So let’s imagine, um, I’m, uh, working at the team level or maybe a little bit above the team level and my company, I’m not going to go, excuse me, CEO, I’m not really clear on your strategy. Could you help me out? Right. Maybe there isn’t one, that’s not necessarily a safe thing to do in companies. So what can somebody closer to the team level do in the absence of a top-down strategy?

Adam Ulery: [24:49] Uh, yeah, I think visibility is, you know, visibility and transparency are, are pretty powerful. So, um, asking questions, being curious, talking openly about, about it, uh, in a way that’s, um, productive and, you know, in a way that is trying to understand it and bring about the awareness that it may need to be more clear or needs, needs to be solidified. I think those are good ways to do it. Um, certainly if you’re in an organization that’s doing agile, especially agile at scale, uh, there are opportunities in reviews or program review type events where that can be discussed or highlighted. And, um, as the team share what goal or what strategy they are working towards, why they worked on what they did, um, it will make that visible if there’s not alignment there. And if it’s clear that there’s not a solidified strategy at the top, that they’re all sort of working towards.

Dan Neumann: [26:09] I love that, especially using the sprint review. So there’s a couple of things. If people are using the scrum framework, you’ve got the sprint review, hopefully your stakeholders and business partners are there to inspect an increment, give feedback on it and talk about where it makes sense to go next. And because you’re doing Scrum, hopefully delivering a working increment when a pivot becomes needed, you’ve already captured a bunch of value from actual working software. So getting value for the expense and it frees you up to move. It’s not like cool let’s pivot, but what about the last six months of work that isn’t in a ready state to go to production and get us any value yet that’s a problem. And so a well-functioning Scrum team delivering increments to production to capture value on a regular basis, create so much more flexibility if and when a strategy does need to change.

Adam Ulery: [27:07] Yeah. Yeah, absolutely.

Dan Neumann: [27:10]
Well, thanks for taking some time today, Adam, to explore strategy and execution, kind of a part two of our strategic versus tactical podcast a couple of weeks ago.

Adam Ulery: [27:19] Yeah. Thanks for the opportunity, Dan I’ve really enjoyed it

Dan Neumann: [27:22] Of course. Yes. And then, you know, we talked about, Hey, here are some of the, some of the root causes to a lack of alignment. And we shared, here are some strategies if you are lacking for that alignment and hoping then that, uh, that helps address some of the problems exhibited when that lack of alignment might be present. So yeah. Get one, create a strategy, share the strategy, make sure people have internalized it, have a way to measure it. Okay. Ours is one possible way and communicate that early and often. So thanks again for taking time to explore Adam.

Adam Ulery: [27:57]
Thank you.

Outro: [28:00] This has been the Agile Coaches’ Corner podcast brought to you by AgileThought. The views, opinions and information expressed in this podcast are solely those of the hosts man, the guests, and do not necessarily represent those of AgileThought. Get the show notes and other helpful tips for this episode and other episodes at agilethought.com/podcast.

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