Why is execution so difficult and strategy so easy?

Why is execution so difficult and strategy formulation so easy? This is one of those perennial management and leadership questions. A question that legendary managers like Jack Welch emphasizes and thought leaders like Ram Charan have been writing about. Somehow execution is equated with “tactics” and numerous budding managers and leaders are constantly told about being more strategic- as if great strategy alone will get things done. Here are some thoughts on bridging the strategy to execution challenge:

[ Note this post was written on May 23, 2012 and minor updates were made on January 30, 2021 due to reader interest. The ideas in this post continue to be relevant as we see the execution struggles with the COVID vaccines. It was easier to invent and manage vaccine production. It’s harder to get vaccines into arms!].

  • Company leaders must emphasize execution: While the firing of 27,000 workers today (May 23, 2012) by HP is a hard blow to jobs, CEO Meg Whitman mentions better execution in her rationale for the HP re-structuring. More CEO’s should put execution on center stage before the organization gets into trouble in not realizing the value of great strategy through poor implementation.
  • Spell out the steps: Spelling out the steps of implementation in a “FAQ” sense right from the CEO is a great help. Invariably, execution is delegated to VP’s who delegate it to Managers and who in turn delegate to front-line employees without clearly spelling out what the end outcome should look like for each level. For example, you want to improve customer retention from 70% to 80% detailed data must be gathered as to reasons of attrition. After this the top causes need to be identified and addressed. Sounds simple but articulating steps like who will gather the data? Who will analyze the data? Who will implement the remedial action? And how will the review happen? is not spelt out or followed up because each step individually seems so mundane,tactical or operational that it seems like below the dignity of the manager,thinking of higher strategic things.
  • Team Relationships: Within team relationships are the only way that each of the steps above can happen. Thus, the data gathering team must be on the same pages as to methods,time-lines and sources of data. Team members who are friends that have coffee together helps!
  • Between team silos: Silos get a lot of attention in MBA training and again tend to get elevated to a philosophical discussion. Operational details of how teams would co-ordinate with each other without mindless long drawn meetings are not spelt out. For example, a video/audio conference between global team members on a routine basis can help.
  • Routine: Finally setting up a routine to follow through on strategy implementation is the key to success. The routine should not be daunting like a full day meeting every Tuesday with several long presentations that took a whole lot of time to prepare. Instead, if the relationship pieces are in place within team and across team communications can be effective and easy.¬†

To summarize, CEO focus on execution, spelling out steps,strong team relationships and a routine  can help organizations deal with the intractable execution of strategy problem.

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