Strategy is Execution…And Vice Versa

Overcoming the intellectual separation of strategy and execution by testing whether you’ve “packed for the journey” can unlock flexibility, creativity, and action.


At a conceptual level, the strategy to execution gap is real. I’ll leave it to the reader to search The Internet for “strategy to execution gap” and to then peruse the studies that show that execution matters…deeply.

But, with all due respect to the percentages derived from executive surveys and the implications they provide, separating strategy and execution in this way amounts to a waste of valuable time. The strategy vs. execution dichotomy is an overly convenient tool used to separate the thinkers from the doers. At its most dangerous, the strategy/execution split leads to recrimination vs. reconciliation—attack and defense vs. collaboration—when it (purposefully or accidentally) pits stakeholders against one another.

As strategic leaders, we must grasp that strategy encompasses execution. Execution is strategy. Strategy is, quite simply, knowing where to place the right kind of pressure on one’s environment to achieve a given set of objectives; but also—and this is important—how much pressure to place and how and when to trigger adjustments.

Noted military theorist Karl von Clausewitz referred to war as “merely the continuation of policy by other means.” War isn’t an end in itself, any more than our vaunted concept of “execution” is. With apologies to Clausewitz: Execution is merely the continuation of strategy.

So, when we accuse execution of derailing a good strategy, are we accusing instead our strategy as a whole? The best strategic plans hinge on a single, defining and definable question: Have we packed for the journey? Any organization’s strategy is evident in the resource and reactive decisions its leaders make on an ongoing basis. Because execution is the most honest expression of strategy (indeed, a more honest expression than any PowerPoint deck could ever be), it’s important that strategic plans encompass readiness for action and change.

As an executive who has formulated, tested, and implemented strategies across sectors and companies, I have used four practical questions to test for whether my teams and clients have “packed for the journey.” In any journey, we prepare to go the distance (enough food, fuel, water, rest, etc.) and we prepare for the unexpected (poncho, first aid kit, a bottle of pepto, etc.). Questions on resourcing and risk are fantastic acid tests for a given strategy because they move beyond a linear plan and force discussion on capability and flexibility. With that in mind, when evaluating a strategic plan, ask these questions:

1. What are the major “chunks” of activity needed to achieve the plan?

So, you want to climb Mount Everest. Okay. Got it. Where are your base camps going to be located? What is your supply chain going to look like? Where will you hide your oxygen bottles? In other words, have you defined the immediate “chunks” of resources and objectives that keep you on schedule to your strategic goals? The body of knowledge on effective intermediate term planning is immense, but shockingly untapped. Find or become an expert at hoshin kanri or its many offshoots (many organizations refer to hoshin planning, goal deployment, strategy deployment, policy deployment, or other terms for the same thing)–take a 5 year strategic plan and turn it into a one, 2, and 3 year plan. Define reality and required resourcing for the plan this way to mesh “strategy” and “execution.”

2. Do your resource allocations reflect the competitive reality of the situation?

Classical military theoreticians proposed that facing an opponent with twice your resources requires four times the quality of resources to merely achieve parity–your quality has to increase exponentially while their quantity advantage increases linearly.The so-called “Lanchester square law” applies conceptually in business, too; and it’s a scary proposition. In many business environments, quantity of customer touches can overcome quality of touch. An organizational plan that assumes twice the account penetration with half the sales personnel per customer of the next competitor needs to be tested for the personnel quality assumptions it implicitly contains. Likewise, a financial plan that reflects deployment of capital at ever increasing returns probably needs to be re-tested for the defensibility it implies.

We all (well, most of us) want extreme productivity and distinctive capabilities; and it’s easy to make that look good on paper. However, there is a tremendous difference between a lean approach to business vs. one that is merely cheap: Long term effectiveness. Test your strategy for effectiveness, not just a pretty model and the fool’s gold of unsustainable efficiency.

3. What are your pivotal assumptions?

Can you define the turning points of your strategy? For instance, do you know what your and your competitor’s strategies look like based on changes in regulations, demographics, demand, or the financing environment? Pivotal assumptions are the ones that, if flexed, cause you to take a significantly different course. Sometimes the most basic test of a strategy is whether the executive can name the 3 pivotal assumptions, in short sentences, and how changes in them cause changes in the strategy. Can you?

4. Will your strategy survive a punch in the mouth?

Former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson’s contribution to the body of strategic knowledge is a great one. He famously stated “Everyone has a plan ’til they get punched in the mouth.” Is your plan built for speed and flexibility? Can it survive a shock? What are the trigger points for improvising? When will you improvise? Embracing uncertainty through scenario thinking will make you more nimble; and it will help ensure that when the “punch in the mouth” inevitably comes, you can improvise and carry on.

There you have it, 4 questions–2 on resourcing and 2 on risk–that help link the typical notion of “strategy” with the typical notion of “execution.” Remember: Execution is strategy. Artificially separating the two may feel tidy, but real strategic leadership is rarely tidy.

Now it’s your turn: How do YOU test your strategic thinking?

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