The Weekend Muse

Random thoughts from my daily experiences

Strategy vs. Execution… can they exist without each other?

Posted by Shrini on May 23, 2011

According to Warren Bennis, “Managers are people who do things right, while Leaders are people who do the right things” . At the Big Opportunity event, Itay Talgam illustrated the difference between Leadership and Execution in an amazing way.  Itay is a world-class conductor, and in that moment he was on stage conducting a professional orchestra. He asked the cellist to play a part of a tune.  The cellist took up her instrument and played a few magical notes.  Itay then asked the flutist to play something, and they played a little solo. Itay then asked a few more to play their favorite tunes.  These were all very skilled and capable musicians, so Itay then asked them all to play their favourite piece of music.  They all picked up their instruments, began to play their favourite tunes, and what resulted was cacophony, as the uncoordinated notes competed and clashed with each other.  And so here’s the point – Even the most talented people in the world need a framework to guide performance.  There are boundaries.  In the case of an orchestra; we call this “the score”, in the case of a business; we call this “the strategy”.

I recently came across someone who felt that I am great at execution – (in the corporate sense and definitely not at the Mafiosi circuit), which lead me to immediately conclude that Strategy is certainly an area I need to focus on. But then on second thoughts, I was wondering, why is strategy so glorified while execution is almost an afterthought?

The real question however is –  are Strategy and Execution mutually exclusive? Can they exist without each other? What is the point having a Strategist, removed from reality, deciding on the course of action, with no skills to implement his ideas? Ask anyone for their idea of the ideal car, job, electronic gadget etc., and am sure most people, with interests in the particular area, will have an opinion. Ask them the next question on how they will deliver that idea or product, and the challenges will surface. Most of the product launches that fail and are later dubbed by analysts (with a 20:20 hindsight vision), for being “ahead of times”, or “poorly conceived” and “not thought through”. This is where the role of the Tactician comes in. You need a good Tactician paired with a Strategist in order to achieve your business goals.

Tacticians or the Executors are experts who know what it takes to implement an idea. They know what works or what does not work. An experienced tactician brings to the table immense value in terms of being able to think through all the options, back-up plans and points of failure. So does this mean that if you are a great Tactician, you will be able to drive your team, department or organization to success? The key word in the last sentence is probably “drive”. Unless one knows where to go, how will you drive towards that goal? Unless you have an idea, a vision, what will you make your team work on? Sustaining the status quo will not help much, if you are ambitious and want to move up in life. Does this mean that the tacticians are good order-takers only and do not bring value to the organization beyond execution of orders?

A good CEO will have a strong Strategic team or a think tank but will also back them up with a robust tactical team or an implementation team. The key is to ensure that these two teams (or individuals, at the smallest level), work together in giving life to an idea or concept.

A truly successful professional, in my mind, needs to be a bit of both – Strategist and a Tactician. You start off by mastering what it takes to implement and also understand the big picture at the same time. Know what you are doing and why you are doing it. How is it helping the Organization in the larger sense? Over time, you should be able to come up with ideas yourself that can change the way your business works.

In the corporate world, what matters is whose idea was implemented – no one comments on the brilliant execution of the idea itself. That explains the phenomenon dominating our corporate scenario today – there are more (wannabe) strategists but there is a serious lack of executors, who can be relied upon to get the job done.

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2 Responses to “Strategy vs. Execution… can they exist without each other?”

  1. Simar said

    Strategy and execution are the two wheels of a. Bicycle. One provides direction and the othr power. One without the other is futile. That said evey individual needs to have a sense of purpose – either provided by self or by another individual… And the more senior u become the more u need to be the one poviding direction rate than power!!!

  2. Gaurav Ahuja said

    Fantastic article! Thank you for sharing. My 2 cents – an expert tactician is inherently a great strategist – excellent execution inherently demands a strategic capability to think how to execute well…..a good strategist may not be a great executor but a good executor will usually have a good measure of strategic thinking capability in them.

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