Execution Trumps Strategy: Strategy is Important but Execution Drives Results… It’s a Bit of Chicken vs. Egg Debate…

Strategy is important, very important, a necessary component for success, but strategy without execution is stagnant — nothing happens. Execute! Get your people to execute! Execution trumps strategy! ~ Sam Geist

Execution trumps strategy: This is about the relative importance of an organization’s ‘strategy’ versus ‘execution’, and at minimal it’s a bit of the chicken-and-egg debate. According to mjfern.com; the claim that strategy is more important than execution, or vice-versa, is puzzling because the two concepts are deeply intertwined. Without a strategy, execution is simply a series of ad hoc activities and initiatives.

Without execution, strategy is simply thoughtful reflection about a business situation. Put simply, to create and monetize customer value– that is, to succeed financially in a market-based economy– a business or venture must develop an effective strategy and execute-on-the-strategy. Strategy and execution are intertwined and iterative, and both are equally important for achieving business success.

According to the Chasm Group; going from strategy to results is about execution, alignment, buy-in, partnering, and shared accountability.   Focus on developing; executable plans, executable positioning, executable go-to-market programs, and executable product roadmaps, which are rooted in the brand of choice drivers.

Executable means cohesive; getting everyone on the same page with the same level of commitment. It means processes and milestones with specific and tangible deliverables. It goes well beyond fanciful visions and the game-changer platitudes. Strategy is great, but fully embracing the ‘top pain point’ is the imperative, and that means: Translating strategy into executables and translating strategy into results…

In the articleEngaging People to Deliver Results by Rich Berens, Jim Haudan, and Katie Outcalt write: The execution of strategy is the most important factor in delivering results. We have heard about importance of concise vision statements, focused strategies, core competence… but, what is it that really drives sustained business results? Studies by Ernst & Young tell us that investors believe the ‘execution of strategy’ is more essential than market position, innovation, or even the quality of strategy itself! We see this play out time-and-time again.

In the book ‘Execution’ by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan they say that strategy is “no longer an intellectual challenge… you can rent any strategy you want from a consulting firm.” Strategy on paper cannot be the prime differentiator. To deliver results, we must find a way to give strategy a life beyond the paper on which it was written. However, most leaders devote their energy to the intellectual aspects of the strategy and then delegate its execution to others.

This sends a powerful and precarious message. By checking the ‘box’, their role in crafting the strategy is complete; leaders tacitly proclaim that the quality of the ‘strategy trumps its execution’. And so, it becomes clear why 90% of strategies are not delivering. People are the key to executing strategies.

Bossidy and Charan state that the “heart of execution lies in three core processes: the people process, the strategy process, and the operations process.” Deploying strategy is all about creating connections… By building critical connections, people at all levels understand the drivers of change and are empowered to own and execute the strategic response…

Quote by Tom Peters: I do not denigrate the usefulness of a thoughtful strategy. It’s just that it is…  Crystal clear (to me!) that strategy is in fact unequivocally subordinate to Execution Excellence/Execution Mania/ Bias for Action. Yep. That pretty well sums it up. You can have the best strategy, you can even frame it and put it up on the wall, but if you’re not executing…it’s just artwork.

In the article What’s More Important: Strategy or Execution? by Steve Tobak writes:  This is an age-old question. It’s easy to say that companies need to do both, but there are times when one ‘strategy’ or ‘execution’ is more critical than the other. Knowing which one to focus-on, at a particular time, is the key. Here are a few examples of how it works … and doesn’t work: When HP hired Carly Fiorina to take the company forward, they truly believed the company needed a bold new direction and new strategy to get there.

They thought the company had lost its way and needed a ‘rock star’ leader to show the company ‘the path’. Seven years later Fiorina was out and HP hired a new CEO, Mark Hurd, and he managed to pull off an effective turnaround. Sure there was some strategy, but he did it
primarily with basic management blocking and tackling (execution). He did it with no-nonsense discipline, by wringing out expenses and improving efficiency, and by putting the right people in key decision-making roles and empowering them to do what it takes to improve operating results.

On the other hand, companies sometimes need new strategy. IBM was getting ready to split itself into pieces when Lou Gerstner showed up. Gerstner transitioned IBM from big iron to IT services, a gut-wrenching strategy change for a company of that size. Of course, there was a great deal of execution needed to accomplish that feat– changing ‘Big Blue’s’ inertia alone was a gargantuan task. But at the core of the turnaround was a necessary change in direction and strategy. 

Now, let’s look at a few  famous corporate failures: Digital Equipment, De Lorean, Commodore, Polaroid, Sharper Image… It’s hard to argue that these companies flopped because they failed to execute. They failed because of failed strategy. Of course, I can argue that all the best run companies focus on both strategy and execution. Competent CEOs recognize the need for both and have processes for both.

However, there are times when either strategy or execution is indeed more critical than the other. Recognizing those times and knowing which one to focus-on is a critical skill that few managers seem to possess. And that’s the main reason why even great companies sometimes fail to overcome significant hurdles.

In the article Strategy or Execution…Which Matters Most? by Andrew Houston writes: An average strategy that is well executed will beat a great strategy poorly executed; every time. So it goes without saying that execution is key to realizing the value in your strategy, but what does this say about setting strategy? Does this mean that strategy is not as important as execution?

The danger in the above logic is that organizations can rush or diminish the importance of setting strategy, in order to focus on execution, and risk having a terrible strategy–well executed. Strategy setting requires evaluating across multiple options, permutations, paths… to determine the optimal way to reach the goal.

Often organizations skip, rush, and not taking the time to think through the different options and end-up with a strategy that is sub-optimal… or just terrible. I am a strong believer in spending the time to establish the very best strategy, then execute (and execute well). So, which matters most: Strategy or execution? In fact, both matter equally.

Quote by Paul Harris: Great execution trumps everything: Strategy is important, but without great execution you will never really understand if your strategy is right. Execution connects you to customers, validates your strategic thinking and provides the fuel for growth.

In the article “Culture Trumps Strategy and Drives Every Tactic’s Execution” by @daylife writes:  Amateurs talk strategy, professionals focus on tactics, and superstars concentrate on culture.  Superstars focus on culture because a company’s culture will determine if the company will successfully execute its strategy and tactics. A company’s culture is a statement of its values that influences all actions and every decision associated with the execution of strategies and tactics.

Company culture isn’t group think, as much as, it’s the identification of valued behaviors and common beliefs. Many successful business people believe that culture is the basis of everything their employees do. If you create the right culture, it can enable you to succeed even when strategies flail and tactics fail. Cultural values must be specific and describe the behavior and/or goals of the organization within the context of broad principles.

Cultural values must be definitive and result oriented to be useful: Think ‘make’, ‘achieve’, ‘deliver’… rather than ‘demonstrate’, ‘show’, ‘lead’… Ultimately, your company’s culture will influence every element of strategy and every tactic executed by the team, on a daily basis. Without a supporting culture, strategy and tactics are somewhat meaningless and execution is problematic…

Strategy and execution is like architecture and construction: They are equally essential and wholly interdependent. One cannot fulfill one without the other. Bad blueprints and good construction has the same outcome as good blueprints and bad construction: A flawed and dangerous structure.

According to Performance Management: Both strategy formulation and execution have challenges and difficulties, however, execution demands more sustained commitment from leadership, than does formulating strategy. Also, an organization’s deficiencies in execution capability will actually bias, disable and dilute the quality of strategy formulation.

An article in the Wall Street Journal declared ‘Strategic Plans Lose Favor’: It’s easy to jump on the bandwagon and declare that in today’s volatile and uncertain world, strategic planning is irrelevant. However, before we discard strategy lets back-up; maybe the problem is not strategic planning itself, but the way in which we apply the technique.

As Michael Porter, commented: Strategy is a word that gets used in so many ways with so many meanings that it can end up being meaningless.” The fact is that strategy is more important than ever. Strategy is much about synchronization of the organization. The basic accomplishment of having everyone singing from one sheet of music creates value and efficiency. Research has shown that excellent execution of an average strategy trumps average execution of a good strategy every time. The key to sustainable competitive advantage, however, is doing both well.

Strategy should be more than a common sheet of music; it should be a classical score played flawlessly by a talented symphony under the guide of an accomplished maestro. As the conductor leads the orchestra, empowering employees doesn’t mean an absence of leadership; but the essence of leadership.

Reacting nimbly, in real-time, is not the death of strategy, but the ideal application of it. In times of uncertainty– more than ever– innovative strategy not only matters but it’s essential, and when combined with great execution the outcome is outstanding success…

At end of the day what matters is the strength and usefulness of what has been built, not how elegant was the blueprint. ~ Steven Schroeder