CLP Beacon - Business Issues and Solutions

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Execution is the NOW Strategy

by David Friedman, Managing Director

I was thinking back to my days in the mid-80s as an executive with a communications company where I had responsibility for both strategy and execution. Their logic for combining the two functions was because they felt that a hand off between two people – one leading strategy and the other leading execution – was a problem because of “interpretation” of what the strategy meant. And in some way, this corporation was prescient because strategy and execution are the yin and yang or two sides of the same coin. In fact, to me, strategy and execution have to intersect.

In the 80s – for those of us who are historians – companies had chief strategy officers who developed all the grand corporate strategies. Now ask yourself today: How many companies have strategy officers? I believe that very few do other than maybe the mega companies in corporate America. How are strategies set? Imagine a football team. (I like sports analogies). 

Let's say that the head coach looks at his players and the other teams in the league and says, “Our strategy is to run the ball because of a, b, c and d. He deduced (call this a DEDUCTIVE STRATEGY) because he used facts about players and experience in games to derive a conclusion. Now, imagine the first game of the year where the opponent studies this team and stacks players against the run. The strategy might have been fine, but execution failed. Or the strategy needs to be reconsidered. Let’s say that feedback from the players on the field and the other coaches indicate a weakness in the secondary of the opponent. The strategy now shifts to one where passing becomes the norm and, by so doing, the game is won.

 Did the fundamental strategy of the team shift? Or did it become opportunistic? What happens if the same process repeats itself in the next game and the game after that? The coaches may now shift entirely because success was due to an effective execution of a different strategy. In fact, in this case, by reason of INDUCTIVE STRATEGY, the team becomes a passing team and goes on to win the superbowl!!! (OK, I am dreaming that the New York Giants do this, but I am a long suffering fan!!)

It really doesn’t matter what is the initial strategy. What matters is that there is an initial direction and initial concept of the “why and how” of winning. Yet based on results or creating the plan and executing on that plan, the team uses that information and results and adjusts. I call this contextual strategy. Think about this. Todays’ world is based on AGILE – agile development, agile (responsive) web, and agile personnel who can perform in multiple areas. In essence, execution and the results achieved either support the initial strategy or adjustments to the initial strategy must be made so you can win the business game. That is the most critical part. As Don Nelson, my former boss and mentor at US Cellular said: “You have to be fast, fluid and flexible.” So true. We are not abandoning strategic thinking, but rather moving it to a new level.
]Using the football analogy, that is why many coaches script the first 20 plays of the game and make adjustments during the game and again at half-time. Their strategies change – to a degree – and hopefully their results improve.

I want to share a short checklist that is necessary to implement execution as a strategy and to start a robust dialog on whether you agree or disagree with this assertion.  
  1. Develop a baseline strategy. An initial strategy is a stake in the sand. Strategies may include an overall corporate strategy, sales strategy, R&D strategy, marketing strategy, brand strategy, operations strategy, people strategy, and I am sure others specific to certain industries.
  2. Focus on Results. Do you focus on quantifiable results that are specific, measurable and achievable and within a logical time period? Is there one person responsible for a specific result? How are results shared with the rest of the team, company or other interested constituents?
  3. Align executives. Do all executives buy into the strategies and understand the interrelationships? For one company, the strategy seemed very clear. Yet when we asked what that meant and how that strategy would be implemented by them, we had a clear case of misalignment.This detracted from results.Based on some serious discussions at a “strategic offsite” the overarching strategy was changed and each executive understood their role and the effect on the strategy and execution. Executive buy-in and commitment are critical for success.
  4. Engage executives in development of the strategy. This is a correlate to number 3. It is also human nature to own those things in which you take part. By having all the executives participate and contribute, and even challenge the strategy and how it would be executed, the chances of success increase. In fact the key is to sketch out the actual execution plan – or at least the first few “plays.”
  5. Define a dashboard. Every company needs a measure of success. Let’s not get bogged down by so many metrics that people get lost in numbers. Normally, though, we can develop 6-10 metrics that can be used to judge success. Should one of them break down, those responsible can peel back the onion – do a deep dive – into the subordinate and supporting metrics to find the root cause and then fix it. Yet everyone should be privy to those things important to the success of the company.
  6. Obtain the right tools and support. You can have a brilliant strategy to develop a low cost item. However, if you don’t have the equipment to produce the products or the people to run the machinery, or the customer service systems to support customers with problems, or a good quality process, the business is doomed to failure, or at least wasted energy.
Lewis Carroll said: if you don’t know where you are going any road will take you there. Companies have to set a course, a direction and have clarity in their destination. Yet as new ideas surface, new competition, new customer demands, or changes to the economic environment occur, companies need to be agile. They need to adapt their strategies based on the results they are achieving and as measured in their dashboard. By so doing, execution becomes the strategy.

We would be glad to hear your points of view and continue this dialog. Please contact me at