Recognizing that long-term planning doesn’t work anymore in a VUCA world, it is oftentimes argued that more attention should be given to the execution of strategy rather than only its generation. But, like the idea that your strategy should be more agile, we can question whether this is a good idea. Should strategy really move towards execution? Or are there risks too?
The core idea, as it is expressed, is that strategy generation has largely failed and that we should therefore move our attention further down the process towards execution. So, along the idea that “a mediocre strategy well executed is better than a great strategy poorly executed,” the suggestion is that we should pay less attention to strategy generation and more to strategy execution. Along this line we find publications with titles such as “Execution as Strategy”, “Execution Is the Strategy” and “The Strategy of Execution.”
Origin of the idea
This idea goes back quite far into the history of strategy. Initially, the field of strategy was mostly concerned with strategy generation. This is natural, given the military roots of strategy. The core point made there is that wars were not won primarily by fighting on the battlefield but by outsmarting the enemy through better thinking and planning. As such, the whole idea of strategy can be understood as a departure from the operational focus of battle to the strategic focus on thinking and planning.
In that light, it is interesting to witness a move backwards to execution in the more recent strategy literature. This trend started somewhere in the 1980s and it can be understood as a response to the observation that so many strategies fail to live up to their promise in practice. Consequently, many publications on strategy execution write about the problems that companies face when implementing their strategies or the success factors that are supposed to overcome these problems.
Benefits and risks
The increased attention to strategy execution has important benefits. First, it counterbalances the over-emphasis on strategy formation that we find in the literature, education, and practice of strategy. Whether it is in strategy textbooks, in consultancy, or in the business press, by and large, most attention is still given to strategy formation. A second benefit is that it reconnects the oftentimes abstract discussions on strategy to the practice of organizations. Taking strategy execution into account draws attention to the fact that a strategy should be actionable and thus concrete and feasible enough to be executed by the organization. Third, this trend also fosters a better understanding of the complexity and difficulty of the complete strategy process, thereby providing us with a rich set of factors to take into account to improve strategy’s success rate.
Focusing on execution, however, also comes with a number of risks. The most important ones are:
- It is misleading in its suggestion that good execution can make up for bad strategy. Execution is important, but it matters a great deal what is executed. Therefore, simply moving away from strategy formation to strategy execution is just a temporary escape route.
- Paradoxically, a hasty move towards execution might seriously delay the strategy process as a whole. It is often better and cheaper to discover weaknesses in a strategy early on during generation, rather than facing them in the midst of execution. Hence, a too early focus on execution might just make the problem worse rather than solve it.
- Third, if the focus is on execution, the function of strategy as a common frame of reference and as holistic overview are lost, as well as an explicit search for differentiating the organization from others. Without those, there is a great chance of fragmented actions that might be counterproductive.
- The increased focus on strategy execution creates an artificial watershed between strategy generation and execution. Conceptually the two are different, but in practice, they need to go hand in hand. This means that it makes no sense to say that one is more important than the other.
- An over-emphasis on execution takes strategy back to where it moved away from in the first place. The whole idea of strategy was to go beyond mere operations and execution. If this is not done anymore, core functions of strategy such as thinking ahead and finding ways to distinguish from the competition might be lost.
Although understandable and intuitively sensible, moving from strategy towards execution doesn’t really solve the issue. Of course strategy will only work when it is properly executed. But to properly execute it, one first needs a strategy that is executable. And that is the point that this idea passes over too easily. An important reason that many strategies are not executed is that the strategies that are generated are often too unclear, unspecific, unrealistic or unsuitable to execute them. This means that, before we should move on to execution, we first need to generate better, more concrete and executable strategy.
This post was published earlier here on my forbes.com page.
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