Strategy and execution is a false dichotomy, unnaturally sheared apart in order to divide labor in increasingly complex organizations. So says Doug SundHeim in the HBR article, Closing the Chasm Between Strategy and Execution. The problem is that both sides, the strategists and executors, don’t see it as their responsibility to intelligently pull the two sides back together again. They leave a chasm, hoping that it will miraculously close on its own. It never does. Things just fall through it.
The best strategists and executors don’t see a hand-off between strategy and execution. They see an integrated whole. They continuously hand ideas back and forth throughout all phases of a project, strengthening them together. They fight to bring each other closer.
Sundheim indicates certain things the best strategists and executors believe that drive their success:
The best strategists believe:
If you can’t see and articulate how you’re actually going to make this strategy work, it probably won’t work. Smart strategists know that there are a lot of gaps, holes, and challenges in their strategies. They tirelessly keep a critical eye on the viability of their plans and stay curious — continuously asking themselves and others, how will this really work? When they find issues, they team up with the executors and get out in front of them.
While it’s painful to integrate execution planning into my strategizing, it’s even more painful to watch my strategies fail. Most strategists dislike execution planning. It’s a tedious process for someone who likes to think about big ideas. But good strategists understand that they have unique insights into the strategy that executors will miss, usually to disastrous ends. So they stay engaged.
Sounding smart is overrated. Doing smart is where the real value lies. Effective strategists aren’t full of themselves. They realize their ideas are just that — ideas. They know that if they’re not executed well, their strategies are nothing more than daydreams.
The strategist is just as responsible for strong execution as the executor is. Is this actually true? Likely not. But it’s a powerful mindset to hold. The best strategists see themselves as leaders, not merely thinkers. They feel their job is to deliver results, not just ideas.
The best executors believe:
You need to be involved in the strategy process early — even if that means you have to artfully push your way into it. It’d be easy if executors naturally had a seat at the strategy table. Unfortunately, they often don’t. Many still receive strategies as a hand-off. Smart executors don’t take this sitting down. They figure out how to get into the strategy process early.
You need to be perceived as relevant and valuable to the strategy process. Smart executors know that they must earn a seat at the strategy table by actually adding value. They must move things forward by providing relevant and thoughtful considerations that strengthen the strategy. They can’t show up and “just listen” in strategy meetings or else they won’t be invited back.
You need to know the “whys” behind the strategy. Smart executors want to know the intent behind the strategy. They want to know the thinking that drove certain choices. They know that this knowledge is crucial to making tough judgment calls when circumstances change down the implementation road (as they inevitably do).
You’re just as responsible for strong strategy as the strategist is. Again, is this actually true? Probably not. But that’s irrelevant. The best executors see themselves as leaders, not merely implementers. They feel their job is to deliver strategic advantage for the organization, not just a project.
There is a clear thread of joint responsibility running throughout all the beliefs above. Sundheim indicates that true collaborative leadership is mandatory for the possibility of strategy execution to be a reality.