Stop Distinguishing Between Execution and Strategy
It’s impossible to have a good strategy poorly executed. That’s because execution actually is strategy – trying to separate the two only leads to confusion.
Consider the recent article, “Why Strategy Execution Unravels – and What to Do About It” by Donald Sull, Rebecca Homkes, and Charles Sull, in the March 2015 issue of HBR. Articles like this are well meaning and all set out to overcome the shortfalls of “execution.” But they all fail, including this one, and for the same reason: you can’t prescribe a fix for something that you can’t describe. And no one can describe “strategy execution” in a way that does not conflict with “strategy.”
Blaming poor execution for the failure of your “brilliant” strategy is a part of what I’ve termed “The Execution Trap” – how “brilliant” can your strategy really be if it wasn’t implementable?
And yet in virtually all writings about problems with “execution” the argument starts by positing that the problem with strategy is that it doesn’t get executed. That is, the authors create a clean logical distinction between “strategy” and “execution.” Then they go on to define “execution” as “strategy.”
To illustrate, “Why Execution Unravels” defines execution as follows:
Strategy execution, as we define the term, consists of seizing opportunities that support the strategy while coordinating with other parts of the organization on an ongoing basis. When managers come up with creative solutions to unforeseen problems or run with unexpected opportunities, they are not undermining systematic implementation; they are demonstrating execution at its best.
The problem is that seizing unexpected opportunities is essentially strategy – not execution. In other words, “Why Execution Unravels” effectively argues that the problem with strategy execution is strategy, which, of course, contradicts the idea that strategy and execution are two separate things.
For me this produced a flashback to Larry Bossidy, Ram Charan, and Charles Burck’s book Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done, published back in 2002. After spending the first 21 pages explaining that “Most often today the difference between a company and its competitor is the ability to execute” and “Strategies most often fail because they aren’t executed well,” the authors provide this definition of “execution”:
The heart of execution lies in the three core processes: the people process, the strategy process, and the operations process. [Emphasis added]
This defines the whole of strategy as one of the three core pieces of execution! To the authors, execution is strategy mere pages after execution is completely different from strategy.
Execution writers fall into this trap because they want to make a distinction between strategy as deciding what to do and execution as doing the thing that strategists decided. But that begs the thorny question, especially in the modern knowledge economy, what exactly does that “doing” activity entail? If it is to be distinct from the antecedent activity of “deciding what to do,” then we pretty much have to eliminate the “deciding” part from “doing.” So to create the desired distinction, we would have to define execution as choice-less doing. There are no choices to be made: just do it (whatever “it” happens to be).
But most people, including the authors of the article and book above, would agree that “doing” clearly includes some “choosing.” So in the end, the only logic that can be supported by what really happens in organizations is that every person in the organization engages in the same activity: making choices under uncertainty and competition.
Calling some choices “strategy” and some “execution” is a fruitless distinction. In fact, it is worse than fruitless; it is the source of the observed problems with “execution.” So if organizations experience “bad execution” it is not because they are bad at the discipline of execution. It is because they call it execution.