Workplace Barriers to Strategy Execution

Nike is famous for its mantra, “Just do it.” While this is a good marketing slogan it is a lousy mantra for strategy execution in business!

One of the critical success factors to effectiveness in every organization is of course execution – getting it done. At 1-degree, we are believers in the old adage of, “work smarter, not harder.” We define execution as:

“Getting the right things done, by the right people, for the right reasons.”

This is not as catchy a phrase as Nike’s, although we feel it is a more helpful mantra for business leaders.

“The right things”                 These are the WHAT’s – the tactics, activities or projects that support the strategy.

“By the right people”           Should be by people who have capability AND passion.

“For the right reasons”        Links to the purpose or why of the business.

There are many types of common executional barriers. At 1-degree, we call this “execution interference.” It’s like body contact in hockey, football or rugby. It’s inevitable and part of the game. But we need to understand it, embrace it and address it in order to be effective and successful. Interference is both mental and emotional. Here are 4 common types of execution interference that we can all relate to:

  1. Mis-alignment – not clear and/or on same page with goals, expectations
  2. Fear – because it’s scary trying new things!
  3. Habits – it’s easier to stick with how we have done things before
  4. Meaning – not clear on the “why” behind the task or project

Let’s look at each of these and what can we do about them as leaders in order to accelerate execution.

Mis-alignment in strategy execution

This is an incredibly common form of execution interference. It is helpful to step back and ask ourselves questions like:

  • Should we do it at all?
  • Have we clearly articulated what success looks like in behavioural terms?
  • How does this project/initiative support the overall strategy?
  • Do we have agreement on accountabilities?
  • Do those accountable for the tactics understand how those actions connect to the strategy and purpose?
  • What other functional areas do we need to engage?

By taking a step back, looking at the big picture, clarifying key goals, and determining key resources needed, we can align the project/initiative with the strategy explicitly.

Fear in strategy execution

There are all kinds of fears. The fear of not being good enough. The fear of not having enough. The fear of the unknown. Too often fears are not expressed – let’s voice our fears! We would love to see “showing vulnerability and transparency” as something cool and as a leadership strength, versus a perceived weakness. We admire leaders that show and encourage vulnerability. That openness is so healthy for an organizational culture. Getting fears out in the open and collaborating on how to address them will help, not hinder execution.

Fear is hard-wired into humans. It’s how we survived as a species. Unfortunately it doesn’t always serve us well with our modern day psychological stress. How do we deal with fear?

  • Acknowledge – First we need to acknowledge that every human by our very nature of evolution experiences fear and that it’s normal.
  • Accept – rather than mentally ignoring the fear we gain much by accepting it and looking at it square in the face. This allows the fear to ‘pass through’ us.


Why are habits so difficult to change?

Let’s look at an example we can all relate to – quitting smoking. There are very few North Americans who aren’t aware of the health issues of smoking. It’s been researched, medically proven and well communicated by our health authorities. Add to that the well used external motivators of shame and ‘do it for your loved ones and society’. And many smokers know that the physical addiction leaves your body in 3-7 days. Yet they continue to light up.

What are the issues that trump not smoking? Consider for the smoker the potential outcomes of the two choices.


  • ‘Should I trust an external authority? Who doesn’t have a story of a great uncle who smoked every day of his life yet lived a healthy long existence?
  • It’s a gamble – ‘MAYBE I’ll live a longer life, there are other things that can kill me’. It’s not certain.
  • It’s a delayed outcome. ‘If I live longer it’s at the end of my life not now’.

Remaining a smoker:

  • lighting up produces a personal (physical and psychological relief);
  • immediate gratification (the instant that first drag is taken) and;
  • certain outcome.

This example refers to personal habits. As leaders we need to be aware of organizational habits (norms and culture) as well. When in doubt, people tend to revert back into old and “tried and true” habits. As leaders, we should encourage trial & error and the development of new/optimized habits. When encouraging new habits, we suggest considering the 3 W’s – Why, WIIFM and When (now!).

  • The WHY provides the context & awareness for the habit
  • The WIIFM (what’s in it for me) makes it personal and provides motivation to make a shift
  • The WHEN of the outcome needs to be immediate (in the next week) vs. out too far in the future

The WHY of quitting smoking may be overall health and wellness.

The WIIFM (what’s in it for me?) depends on the person – it likely could link to a personal health goal or outcome that matters to the individual.

The WHEN needs to be framed as immediate (ie. quitting will help your breathing when you run 5km three times a week).If the WHEN is framed in the context of “you may get cancer some day,” that is NOT going to shift the behaviour! Having a clear WHY + WIIFM + immediate WHEN dramatically increases the likelihood of trying a new or improved habit.


Dan Pink in his great book, Drive, discusses 3 types of motivation which is highly relevant when considering executing anything: mastery, autonomy & purpose. At 1-degree, we are big believers in the role purpose & meaning play at every level in an organization. This links back to the WHY described above. If as leaders, we don’t have a clearly articulated WHY for a project, initiative or idea, it just ain’t going to get executed! Well, it may, but it will be half-hearted and/or half baked.