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Matthew E. May

Quality Insider

Strategy vs. Execution

A meaningless distinction

Published: Tuesday, March 31, 2015 - 09:52

Over on the Harvard Business Review blogs, there’s a wonderful debate on the subject of strategy between Roger Martin, who wrote “Stop Distinguishing Between Strategy and Execution,” and Don Sull, an MIT scholar who believes there’s a meaningful distinction between strategy and execution.

Normally, I don’t bother looking at comments to blogs because in our social media-driven world they generally add little if any valuable insight. At their best they provide vanity metrics for the hosts (e.g., thumbs-up, likes), and at worst they are simply a means for commenters to plug themselves (take a gander at how many commenters on HBR say something like, “I’ve posted my own thoughts on xyz-look-at-me-at-some-silly-url-dot-com.”).

But in this case, there’s great fun in watching people try to hang with Martin’s thinking. Basically, they can’t, and don’t, but keep doing the HBR equivalent of Einstein’s insanity definition: saying the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Even Sull can’t hang with him. Let’s face it, there’s a reason Martin is in third place on the Thinkers50 list, while Sull is, well, not on it.

Most people know I subscribe to the Martin school of thought, so I’m obviously biased. Still, given the fact that my day job for more than 25 years has been facilitating teams through strategy, innovation, and lean sessions, I can attest to the meaninglessness of making a distinction between strategy and execution.

One commenter, arguing against Roger’s main point wrote, “I think of strategy as plotting the course, execution as steering the ship.”

A nice sound bite, but let’s think about it for moment.

You’ve plotted your course; mapped it all out. You’ve chosen a path that will get you from A to B in what you think is the best possible course, given your ship and crew and supplies. But your course assumes certain weather and water conditions. You won’t know until you’re on your way if those conditions will come true or not. So you hit the water and begin “executing” your “strategy.” Then the wind shifts unexpectedly, violently, and now you have to rethink your “strategy.” Are you now executing or strategizing as you make new choices and pick a new course?

It’s one and the same. It’s a meaningless distinction to separate strategy and execution, because you simply can’t arrive at a real-world definition that separates the two in anything but a completely abstract and academic way that allows folks like Ram Charan and Larry Bossidy to write books titled Execution (Crown Business, 2009).

Now, there is, as Martin points out in his rebuttal to Sull’s comment, a distinction between strategy and detailed strategic planning, the latter being the observable act of producing thick volumes of specific actions, timelines, and budgets. “I have no appetite for strategic planning,” writes Roger. “But I love strategy.”

Amen. Great stuff. Take a look.


About The Author

Matthew E. May’s picture

Matthew E. May

Matthew E. May counsels executives and teams through custom designed facilitation, coaching, and training using four basic ingredients: strategy, ideation, experimentation, and lean. He’s been counseling for 30 years, a third of it as a full-time advisor to Toyota. He is the author of four books, the latest The Laws of Subtraction (McGraw-Hill, 2013), and is working on his fifth book. His work has been appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, and many other publications. May holds an MBA from The Wharton School and a bachelor’s degree from Johns Hopkins University.


Strategy, Execution: Goals, Objectives, Policies, Procedures

I am wrestling with the statement "It is a meaningless distinction to separate strategy and execution ...".  I agree with the futility of separating strategy from execution, but I find I agree with the sound bite - they are distinct.  The strategy defines at various levels of detail what you intend to do; execution is doing it.

In working with the implementation of process standards in Engineering organizations, the key distinctions - and greatest misunderstanding - is among the many levels of decomposition of "strategy".  While slavish attention to a standard (or methodology) can lead to pitched battles over the meaning of policy, strategy, goal, and objective, my take is that they form a continuum from whatever you consider the top (e.g., a corporate goal or strategy) to detailed procedures and plans for specific activities.  What is critical is that each level of "strategy" be appropriate to the level at which it is defined - that it not impose excessive or unnecessary requirements (or restrictions) on the lower levels and that it clearly communicate all the requirements that are intended.

Circling back to the futility of separating strategy and execution, the expressions of the strategy must be in forms that allow adaptation to the realities of the execution.  While the example of lemmings comes to mind, another example is an engineering team that discovered a much better way to achieve a desired end result.  The team did not implement it because changing the defining strategy would have been impossible in the time available - and no-one wanted to do it.  Or did they implement the improvement and just not tell anyone?  I forget.