It’s amazing to me how often the word “strategy” is overused used. I mean, seriously, I do not think that word means what you think it means (with a nod to Inigo Montoya). So often, I get into discussions with clients where I ask, “What is your strategy?” There are only two acceptable answers to this question.
One: “Our strategy is (insert a clear, concise, purpose/mission-driven definition of success with defined metrics and long-term goals here).”
Two: “We don’t have one.” (Or “we don’t know” is also acceptable.)
ANYTHING else is UNacceptable.
A strategy is not “to achieve results.”
A strategy is not “to complete an activity.”
A strategy is not “to hire a leader/build a team/get the right people on the bus.”
A strategy is not “to keep doing we have always done, but do it much better.”
Strategies are complex and powerful things. Merriam-Webster offers this definition – strat-e-gy (noun): a careful plan or method for achieving a particular goal usually over a long period of time. Now, add in Henry Mintzberg’s concept that strategy is “a pattern in a stream of decisions.” The concept of strategy is not as linear as McKinsey consultants recent MBA grads like to think.
But this rant post is actually not about strategy. It’s about the execution of strategy. In other words, let’s assume for a moment that you already have a clear, concise, purpose/mission-driven definition of success with defined metrics and long-term goals. (Diagram that sentence if you really want to dive into what I consider a decent strategy, then add in both external and internal influences for context.) The tough part, the bit worth all of your money, is whether or not you can execute that strategy.
Or to slightly revise an old saying – strategy is for amateurs, execution is for professionals.
So, my next few rants posts will be about some of the critical keys to strategic execution that I have learned over the years and now teach.
The first key – and I would actually call this the MOST IMPORTANT/CRITICAL/PICK-A-SUPERLATIVE key – is to demand clarity on the problem before you even begin. Starting without clarity on the problem your strategy is addressing is like chasing after the wind. You will never truly make any progress.
Think of it this way. All strategies are about getting from the current state to a desired state. Recognizing that there are two, different states means that you must also recognize that a gap exists between the two, different states. This gap is the problem. And these problems come with their own set of sub-problems (kinda like a mother-in-law or a step-dad).
Now, you can tell people all about a strategy, but if you don’t tell people about the problem/gap that the strategy is going to have to tackle… well, let’s just say that you are setting people up to fail. It’s like telling people they are going climb a high mountain without telling them about the lack of oxygen at high altitudes. You may certainly have the physical skills covered, but without the ability to actually breathe…
The problem(s) must be accounted for – and built into the plans for executing the strategy. I would even go so far as to say that the problem should be embedded into the strategy, like a requirement attached to the strategic outcome (win a war with the least amount of non-combatant harm). This is essential for two reasons. One, people must include the problem in their thinking. Two, people must include the problem in their thinking. (Yes, I did write that twice on purpose.)
What good is executing a strategy that ignores the problem or even makes the problem worse? For example, if the business strategy is defined as “capturing market share with a new and innovative product,” but the company’s employee base is beginning with zero understanding of what the new product does, how can the strategy be executed? In this case, the strategy is really about “equipping the organization to capture market share with a new and innovative product.” People must include the problem in their thinking.
When leaders are discussing the strategy, the problem of equipping their people must be a part of all tactical discussions – not just the end result of market share or launching the new product.
When managers are interpreting the strategy for their teams (which they must do), they need to make sure that their instructions to the team address the problem effectively. Otherwise, whatever solutions they are creating will not be big enough. They won’t be achieving the kind of gains needed to achieve success for the greater vision.
And finally, when metrics are being collected and evaluated, the problem of equipping the organization should also be included in the metrics. What good are sales numbers without any insights as to why they are up or (more likely) down?
In strategic execution, people must include the problem in their thinking.
And here’s the rub. Defining the problem takes more time than most Type A leaders want to give. At the same time, the single biggest cause of failure for strategic execution is a poorly defined problem. You cannot pursue a strategic outcome without defining the root causes/inputs of the problem(s) that the strategy must address. So what do far too many well-intentioned-but foolish leaders do? They use their time to create a crystal clear definition of the outcome that must be achieved. They might even be genuinely long-term in their thinking and communication. But they don’t spend any extra time to define the problem enough. Which means that they don’t want to include their people in achieving the strategy. Not really. Because if they did, they would provide clarity on the problem so that when decisions are being made on the front line, away from the boardroom and executive row, they would be addressing the problem in order to achieve success.
Instead, frontline decisions often generate momentum for dysfunction. Well-intentioned managers add to the problem’s complexity, instead of stripping it away. Siloes form and interdepartmental wars begin. Sales versus Marketing/IT/Legal anyone? The strategy becomes less about solving the problem or achieving success and more about survival. As the dysfunction grows. And becomes entrenched in the culture. And the ability to breathe slowly disappears.
So, leaders, don’t chase after the wind. Provide clarity on the problem before you even begin strategic execution. And, followers, don’t chase after the wind. Demand clarity on the problem before you even begin strategic execution. Anything less is fuel for failure.
I mua. Onward and upward.
By Tim Ohai