By Dr. Ben Gilad, ACI Faculty
Aren’t you tired of this perennial debate? If you are, it is because people don’t like to take sides, so they say “both.” This is the vanilla answer from people who also follow (and like!) the popular posts on LinkedIn that claim the secrets to getting hired, promoted, living long or being wealthy is to be kind, productive and avoid hitting their bosses in the face.
You need to make a choice. Do you know why? Because strategy is all about choices, and choice is the hardest thing in the world for successful companies with well compensated executives. What people who think strategy and implementation are equally important don’t tell you is that they really think strategy is overrated, and execution is extremely hard. There is nothing further from reality.
The vast majority of employees – 99.99937% to be exact and scientific – are dedicated to execution. That is by definition the role of employees and managers (but not leaders!). In a typical Fortune 500 business unit, that translates into 10, 20, 30, 100,000 people who toil day and night and sometime on the weekend to implement their company’s strategy. If 100,000 employees putting check-marks on tasks accomplished, meeting attended, quotas met, email sent, and vendors contracted can’t execute, who can- the North Korean military? The Argentinian finance minister?
So why do most managers think execution is hard and strategy is easy? Probably because no one gathers them in one place and tells them to take a break from the relentless execution for one day, and think strategically. When someone does, as I do in war games, managers are often shocked at how hard strategy is.
The crux of the issue is not actually what’s harder. Who cares? The crux is the underlying belief that if execution was just a bit better (or actually, perfect), the company will prosper, competition will be defeated, and peace will dawn on earth. Sorry, folks, and those who believe that one will regret “pretending to be what one is not” (a direct quote from a post on LinkedIn followed by 225K people who pretend to be working…) – that is mere fantasy.
Do you know why strategy is so hard? Three reasons:
• When you make a choice, you have to sacrifice something in order to create distinction: Old product lines, big markets that are getting commoditized, customers that demand more than you should give. Giving up revenue in the short term for higher profitability in the longer term is soul tearing. Saying ‘good bye’ to something that worked so well for a (and may be still working somewhat) is torture (not the kind that Cheney denies, but still.)
• Strategy is not marketing. It has to be consistent across product lines and at times, divisions and business units. It has to encompass R&D, manufacturing, logistics, and other value chain activities that together produce unique value. Go figure! At times, it is simply impossible to overcome the egos and self-interest of fellow executives in those other so Siloed areas (not yours, of course).
• But the most important factor of all: strategy is hard because competitors will do what is necessary to foil it. And that simple fact means that you can execute perfectly a strategy and still fail miserably because competitors’ strategy was better.
Bad strategy can never be saved by excellent execution. Great strategy stumbling on execution can be saved quickly with strategic intelligence. All you need is to understand what (strategic) intelligence is all about.