Why You’re Getting Strategy Wrong (For Executives)

Why You’re Getting Strategy Wrong (For Executives)

In the fast-paced realm of corporate leadership, the words “strategy setting” and “strategy execution” often seem to blend together, forming an indistinct mass of managerial jargon. High-level executives, renowned for their ability to navigate complex business landscapes, might occasionally find themselves trapped in this linguistic web. 

Consultants are engaged, objectives are set, yet the desired outcomes remain unmet. The possible root cause? A fundamental misunderstanding of the difference between strategy and execution.

This article serves as a beacon of clarity for executives navigating these waters as they hire one consultant after the other with no hopes for tangible results and growth. We delve into the details of strategy setting and execution, highlighting their distinctions, and emphasizing the relationship between them. 

It’s time to break down the barriers, enabling executives to harness the true potential of both elements in steering their organizations toward success.

The Factory Metaphor: A Flawed Approach

Picture your organization as a factory, with inputs, processes, and outputs meticulously aligned. A simple equation dictates your actions: input A leads to output B, and a 1% increase in efficiency results in a 2% boost in output. 

On the surface, this approach appears logical, but this is where the problem lies: what if you’re producing something no one desires anymore? It’s as though you’re trying to manufacture gold when you’re really manufacturing lead instead, something nobody wants? This is where strategy diverges from mere planning. It’s about veering away from what is within your control and delving into unexplored market where there’s more potential, and more eager potential clients. 

Strategy Is Key: To clarify, planning is not inherently bad; it serves as a valuable tool. However, without a well-crafted strategy underpinning it, planning becomes a useless endeavor. 

We sometimes resort to planning because resources are limited, change is constrained, and our thinking is bound by limitations—this is the essence of our human nature, so this is the default way of thinking because it serves as a safety net; there’s no need to think beyond what is already in our reach. As the ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu once said, “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory.” 

Planning, as a tactical element, is indispensable but requires strategic guidance. Plans are rigid, but strategies are more dynamic. It’s why it requires thought discussions and difficult decisions.

It’s about time to break out of the safe space. 

The Strategy, a.k.a The Big Picture

For many big-shot consulting companies, strategy is a realm enriched by a wealth of knowledge, licensed methodologies, and comprehensive databases. When these organizations present their strategies to clients, they bring forth a treasure trove of statistics and facts, all the while exuding confidence and authority. Yet, this high-level approach often leaves clients confused, wondering how to translate these grand ideas into actionable steps.

The Abstract Nature of Strategy: It’s important to recognize that many of these powerhouse companies are primarily focused on strategy, not execution. Strategy, at its core, is the roadmap to achieving a goal—the “how” of the equation. Once the “how” is established, the challenge becomes the “what”—what specific actions must be taken to realize the strategy? 

This is where the nuances emerge.

The Need for Detailed Execution

Imagine a strategy calling for the integration of technology into every facet of your operations or emphasizing the nurturing of specialized talent with unparalleled freedom to do as they please within their respective departments. These concepts are undoubtedly strategic in nature. However, the moment you dive into the “what”—the specific actions required to implement these strategies—the need for execution expertise becomes glaringly evident.

Execution Expertise: Execution drills down to the tactical level. It involves creating a detailed plan for action—such as creating new departments or assigning tasks—but overall, it’s defining the steps necessary to bring the strategy to life. 

This is where the experts in execution shine, asking critical questions about processes, people, and the resources required to breathe life into the strategy.

It’s crucial to recognize that expertise in setting up a strategy does not automatically translate to proficiency in action planning, change management, or performance management, and vice versa. Specialization is a reality that often goes overlooked.

Executives who excel in crafting strategic visions may not possess the intricate knowledge required to develop detailed action plans. Conversely, those skilled in execution may struggle with the abstract, high-level thinking demanded by setting up a strategy.

Navigating the Levels of Strategy: Setting, Execution Architecture, and Execution

In the world of corporate strategy, understanding the multifaceted nature of strategic planning is crucial for high-level executives. It’s not enough to simply set broad objectives; instead, it requires a deep comprehension of the distinct levels within the strategic framework. 

We’re going to delve into these three levels of strategy: Strategy, Strategy Execution Architecture, and Strategy Execution.

Strategy: The Foundation of Vision

At its core, strategy represents the foundational stage of strategic planning. This is where the grand vision for an organization takes shape, guided by the overarching question: “How are we going to achieve our goals?” While it might seem like an abstract concept, strategy is akin to setting the coordinates for a journey.

Vision and Direction: Strategy involves defining the destination an organization wishes to reach and charting the high-level course to get there. It answers the “how” of the equation, providing a clear sense of purpose. Much like a captain charting a course for a voyage, it sets the direction for the entire organization.

Strategy Execution Architecture: Blueprinting the Execution

While strategy outlines the direction, the strategy execution architecture serves as the detailed blueprint for execution. Think of it as the concept design, where the “how” articulated in the strategy is translated into something more structured. This intermediate level bridges the gap between the high-level vision and the execution stage.

Designing the Execution: Strategy execution architecture delves into the specifics of how the strategic vision will come to fruition. It involves determining the tools, processes, and people required to execute the strategy successfully. It’s akin to creating a map with designated routes and landmarks for the journey ahead. Note that we still haven’t detailed the actual action plan just yet—as mentioned before, this is more of a design concept stage, where a more abstract version of the action plan is put in place. To understand it more clearly, execution architecture is neither as abstract as the strategy, and neither is it as detailed of an action plan as required in the execution phase. 

Strategy Execution: Bringing the Vision to Life

The final level of strategy, and perhaps the most critical, is execution. This is where the rubber meets the road, and the strategic plan is translated into action. While the strategy execution architecture sets the stage, strategy execution ensures that every aspect of the plan is carried out effectively.

Action-Oriented: Strategy execution or execution is all about action. It involves creating detailed action plans, like establishing new departments or teams, assigning specific tasks, allocating resources, and setting timelines. It’s the phase where abstract ideas take concrete form.

The Role of Change Management: As execution invariably involves change within an organization, effective change management practices are crucial. This includes clear communication, training and development, feedback mechanisms, and conflict resolution to address resistance.

Performance Management: Alongside execution, performance management is vital. Objective Key Results (OKRs) are defined to track progress and success. Regular assessments, accountability, and adaptation are essential components to ensure that the strategy remains on course.

The Need for Specialization: In this phase, it becomes evident that specialization is paramount. Not everyone who excels in setting a strategy or even strategy execution architecture possesses the intricate knowledge required for execution. This is where experts in execution come into play, asking critical questions about processes, resource allocation, and the nuances of turning vision into reality. This is going to require someone with speciality and strong management skills.

Getting Strategy Right Is to Understand How It Serves You

In the world of business, strategy and execution are two sides of the same coin. One cannot thrive without the other. High-level executives must appreciate the nuances of each phase and acknowledge the significance of specialization in executing strategies effectively.

A strategy serves as the guide that illuminates the path to success. But that’s all it does, it’s just a very abstract roadmap. Without the action plan necessary to execute this roadmap, the goal will remain distant and unattainable.

Understand the differences between strategy and execution, recognize the role of specialists, and cultivate a comprehensive approach to achieve your organizational goals. In doing so, high-level executives can lead their companies not as factories producing the mundane, but as alchemists transforming their endeavors into pure gold.