Is Execution Where Good Strategies Go to Die?
Source: HBR 7 Nov 2017
Execution is an odd word. On the one hand, it means “the carrying out of a plan or course of action.” On the other, it means, “the carrying out of a death sentence.” When leaders “execute a strategy,” they usually mean the former — putting an idea into action. But those efforts all too often end up meaning the latter. Execution is often where strategies go to die.
So what determines whether execution brings life or death to your strategy? It’s not what you think. It’s how you think. The mental models that inform strategy are usually different from those that determine implementation. To close the strategy-execution gap, leaders have to close several other, smaller gaps.
First, the thinking styles of the people who create strategy are often different from those of the people who implement it. In my work analyzing the thinking styles of leaders in organizations, I’ve found that strategy is usually developed by people who have a big-picture orientation, while execution is often done by those with a detail orientation. Furthermore, strategy is usually done by people who are focused on ideas and connections, while implementation is done by those who focus on process and action.
This difference in thinking styles creates a problem when strategy turns into execution. Those who create the strategy are often thinking about the destination, particularly the opportunity and intended outcomes. Meanwhile, those responsible for implementation are thinking about the realities of what it will take to get there. When the strategy is presented, they naturally begin to ask questions about risks and roadblocks — a natural consequence of having a detail-oriented thinking style. But to strategists focused on the big picture, this seems like resistance: “Don’t they see the brilliance of the strategy?” So they get defensive and begin working on overcoming the “resistance.” In turn, this makes the implementers feel suspicious: “I was just trying to understand it better. Why are they being so defensive?”
Right from the start, the relationship is adversarial rather than collaborative, not because of a problem with the strategy but because of a difference in thinking styles. The solution is for strategists to expect different kinds of questions from the implementers than from their fellow strategists. Understand that this can just as easily be a sign of engagement as a sign of opposition. Realize that it takes all kinds of thinking styles to turn a vision into a reality: big-picture and detail, ideas and actions, processes and relationships. If you want to change other people’s behaviors, you have to shift their thinking. You also may have to engage in a bit of unlearning yourself.
The second gap is a result of the connection between participation and ownership. In a phenomenon dubbed “the Ikea effect,” researchers found that people preferred things they helped make to things that were preassembled, even if their creations were of lower quality. What applies to furniture also applies to strategy. Often stakeholders are kept out of the strategy process out of concern that they will slow things down or compromise the quality of the outcome. But this is a shortsighted view. By involving stakeholders earlier, you give them a sense of ownership that speeds things up when it comes time for execution. Furthermore, the evidence suggests that diversity will actually improve the quality of the strategy. And it’s far more likely the strategy will stick to its flight plan, because those responsible for its execution will have a stake in defending it.
The third gap between strategy and execution is in the narrative around the strategy. The strategy itself may be sound, but what matters for execution isn’t what is said but what is heard. Strategy is inherently about creating something new or getting somewhere new. But the way humans are wired, it’s difficult to process something that is completely unrelated to what we already know. A good narrative helps people move from the past to the future. Steve Jobs’s genius in announcing the iPhone was explaining it as three devices: a touchscreen iPod, a new kind of phone, and an internet communicator. He built a conceptual “horseless carriage” — a bridge between the old and the new.
The lack of narrative is particularly a problem in the relationship between sales and marketing. Too often, marketing puts out a new advertising campaign, a new value proposition, or new messaging for the sales team with the expectation that the sales teams will just start using the new language, almost as if they were changing the content on a web page. This behavior is a result of the underlying mental models of sales and marketing. Marketers see the world as campaigns, messages, channels, and audiences. Salespeople see the world as prospects and products, offers and opportunities. To a marketer, sales is a channel for reaching their audience. But salespeople wants to be treated as customers, not channels.
Here the “Ikea Effect” can be particularly helpful. Too often, salespeople aren’t involved marketing conversations about messaging and sales enablement strategies. When I conduct workshops with marketing and leadership teams on the design of strategic narratives, I’m often asked, “Should we include the sales teams?” The question itself reveals the mental model at work. Inevitably, the sales leaders make vital contributions to the conversation. In addition, the deployment of the narrative into the field goes far more smoothly, both because the sales leaders have a sense of ownership and because the strategy is framed in a way the sales teams will best understand it.
The fourth gap between strategy and execution is in measurement and metrics. This, too, is a reflection of mental models. You only measure what you can see. And your mental models determine what is visible or invisible. I consistently see measurement as an afterthought in strategy development. The assumption is that financial measures like cost and revenue are sufficient metrics to measure progress. But that would be like a coach only tracking points on the scoreboard. You need metrics that tell you how well your game plan is being executed — metrics that all of your players can organize around. If you’re a basketball coach, those metrics might be focused on rebounds, turnovers, or assists. If you’re managing a new product launch, those metrics might be free trial sign-ups, preorders, or product reviews.
The mismatch between metrics and strategy is common in the digital transformation efforts of many companies. Their strategies are designed to create network efforts through platform-based business models or to leverage advanced technologies like AI or the internet of things. These companies expect the organization to execute exponentially, but their mental models — and therefore metrics — are still incremental. In the beginning of a disruptive innovation, the thing to measure is not ROI.
As an example, from the beginning Amazon was primarily concerned with the number of online reviews per product, the number of affiliates selling on the platform, and the number of Prime members joining the program. Meanwhile, other retailers were still focused on year-over-year same-store sales, treating their e-commerce operations as a “digital store.” Their mental model constrained their metrics, which in turn distorted their behavior.
Focus your metrics instead on learning and the creation of network effects. How many experiments are you able to run per week or even per day? How well are you connecting the various forms of capital across your business? How rapidly is your ecosystem growing? How easily can people share data across the enterprise? These are much better indicators of whether you are truly aligning strategy and execution for digital disruption.
Execution doesn’t have to be the place good strategies go to die. As you are developing your strategy, take into account the thinking styles and mental models of the people who will be responsible for its execution. Involve them to generate a sense of ownership and to tap into their collective wisdom. Craft a narrative that connects the past to the future. And design metrics that focus attention and motivate behavior around what will really make the strategy successful.