Why You Can't Separate Strategy & Execution

This piece was co-written with my well-respected peer and friend, Steven Keith.

When you think of strategy and/or execution, do you think of them as two sides of a yin-yang or two things you need in that order (strategy, then execution) to meet a goal? And do you believe that strategy is the magic brilliance that comes from the hilltop and execution is the tactical busy work to make strategy’s brilliance shinier? Of course you don’t—but this thinking is a little more common than you may believe.

Some believe that strategy is the exclusive domain of the old business folks and execution is the domain of the young creatives and project managers who carry the mandate to make the strategic thinking come alive. The terms “strategic” and “tactical” carry different weights within many organizations, and unfortunately one gains more attention or credence (often strategy).

We understand how this thinking happens and why it’s so pervasive. But we also believe it’s arrogant, inefficient and completely counter-intuitive to getting the right things done in any organization.

For decades we have read, been told and come to believe that the big companies we aspire to be are led by strategy canonized by the big strategy consultants. And because we want the same success, we do the same dance—regardless of who we are or how fundamentally different we are from the companies who habitually purchase seven-figure strategic consulting and then throw that thinking over the fence for the pragmatists to execute.

Having a strategy isn’t a bad thing—there’s no arguing that. But valuing strategy over tactics is a fool’s game. And cultivating an organization that supports this hierarchy (strategic direction with disregard of how to get there) is a dangerous trap of inefficiency that results in stunted growth, disengaged employees and a colossal waste of resources.

We believe that strategy and execution, as two different entities, is a false dichotomy. Harvard Business Review explains, “…these two areas are unnaturally sheared apart in order to divide labor in increasingly complex organizations.” At the surface this appears to make sense organizationally, but it’s an oversimplification of how companies need to convert good ideas into well-executed outcomes that are aligned to pre-determined goals or objectives.

Strategy without execution chops—and execution without strategy—is a rudderless endeavor that leads nowhere.

We see smart strategy as an effort that takes into full consideration the executional elements of the customer journey. It is merely the engine that answers two questions:

1. “Where do we want to go?
2. “How to do we get there?”

It’s the map making and commitment, while execution is the journey itself and everything done along the way.

We see strategy as a pattern that results from a stream of decisions, not a mandate that imposes itself to shape the decisions. It’s more adaptive and organic in how it influences execution.

We don’t believe strategy is a force to impose on execution; instead, we consciously build strategy that increases directional confidence in execution. We deliberately make them as inseparable as we can. We think it’s liberating that quality execution has the ability to influence and reshape strategy.

This means strategy should be:

  • Flexible and adaptive, not structured

  • Empowering, not domineering

  • Collaborative, not hierarchical

Knocking down the doors separating strategy from execution allows for:

  • Saved cost: By spending fewer hours and dollars on speculation and chasing instincts

  • Greater creativity: By mixing right brain and left brain in a fast, unyielding manner

  • Strengthened teams: By playing off each other’s strengths to decrease the rate to client satisfaction

  • Eliminating arrogance: By valuing each as equals and leveling the playing field

So what happens if, instead, you keep these two powers locked in separate rooms?

Separating strategy and execution results in:

  • Wasted efficiencies: By relying on process rather than organic collaboration

  • Wasted brainpower: Through missed opportunities to realize full strategic firepower during execution

  • Wasted time: Due to mindless “cool hunting” in absence of creatively solving business problems

  • Hollow hierarchies: Due to one group believing their work is more (or less) important than the other’s

Every company is different and should adopt an approach that make the most sense for them. But you can thrive in a more modern and agile world if you refuse to silo strategy and execution, and if you stop placing greater value or credence in strategy over execution.