“Strategic direction is more important today. It's about providing a framework for managers to navigate through the fog of complex chokes. No company can avoid this."

– C.K. Prahalad –

PoS Aug 2012 | The Execution Trap

I thought I’d share with you an excellent article that challenges prevalent wisdom that strategy and execution are separate. That strategy often fails because of poor execution. In The Execution Trap (HBR, July 2010) Roger L. Martin argues it is a flawed idea.

The strategy-execution dichotomy has gained currency since the 2002 bestseller Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done by Bossidy and Ram Charan. The underlying assumption is that senior managers formulate strategy and others execute it. It suggests strategy is choosing and execution is doing; that people who execute are “choiceless doers”.

This premise is not usually borne out in practice. Strategy formulation may be abstract at high levels of the organization, but people at other levels make choices within their own areas of responsibility. Martin narrates the story of Mary the bank teller and how she dealt differently with different customers so that they would be happy with the bank’s service. She made choices.

He argues that where employees behave as ‘choiceless doers’, by the rulebook, the organization becomes bureaucratic. It discourages initiative, strategy fails, and senior management and frontline employees blame each other.

Martin offers a different view: strategy as a choice cascade. Leaders at the top make high-level abstract choices that may involve long-term investment in building capabilities or resources in specific areas. At each level below employees make decisions relevant to their roles and responsibilities. He recommends four ways in which decisions at various levels can be integrated for consistency

I have two further observations.

Execution fails when strategy is inconsistent with resources and capabilities that are available or can be acquired. Isn’t that a failure of strategy? How can you blame execution if strategy was flawed in the first place?

Strategy is rarely, if ever, first time right. It emerges from experiments, little and big steps, and learning by doing. Strategy and execution then cannot be separate from each other. They are like the intertwined strands of a rope. Separate them and there is no strategy.

I am sure you will profit from reading the original piece.

With every good wish,

V.N. Bhattacharya
Business Strategy Consultant