“If you continually ask yourself, “What’s important now?”, you won’t waste time on the trivial.”
– Lou Holtz, Football Coaching Guru
After graduating Stanford, when I was a strategy consultant at Mercer Management Consulting, every so often, I would hear someone assert, “It all comes down to execution.” I would take a moment and say to myself, under my breath, “Then why the heck are you doing a strategy project?” Like a fine wine, it is one of those terms that get better with time, and I’ve come around, with the absolute belief that “It all comes down to execution.”
The Interplay between Strategy & Execution
The best way to think about the interplay of strategy and execution is to think about the Super Bowl. For the two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, coaches and players develop their game strategy. They diagnose their competitor’s strengths and weaknesses, opportunities they can exploit, shoring up their potential issues, building game plans, drafting up new strategic plays, planning actions under different scenarios, and preparing for the biggest show on earth. The execution of the game starts the second the first whistle blows at kickoff. Coaches typically develop winning strategies during the execution of the game. As the coaches and players start seeing their competitor’s execution and game plan unfold, they start making mid-game strategic adjustments. A game is won or lost by the strategic decisions made during the game, at halftime, and with 2 minutes to go.
This interplay between strategy and execution occurs in every organization. While strategic planning is essential, it is in the quality of execution and the strategic decisions made during execution, which separates the performance of organizations.
I’ve seen so many companies paralyzed by what I call the “strategy trap.”
Most of us can relate to the strategy trap, the no-mans-land of a seemingly reoccurring nightmare of constant planning, deliberating, meeting, talking, analyzing, debating, Powerpointing, and getting nowhere fast. The kicker of the strategy trap is leadership teams often don’t even know they are in the strategy trap. They think it is the purgatory they must live through to be successful. And, while they are stuck in the strategy trap, some of their competition is executing, learning, improving, and often, growing their lead day by day.
The irony is the best strategy often comes from the new facts and perspectives gained from actual execution. Just like the Super Bowl, once you are playing in the game, is when opportunities and issues present themselves.
How do you know you are in the strategy trap?
In a new situation, one of the first things I do is assess if an organization is in the strategy trap. I observe how much time the leadership and management are spending on strategy, planning, diagnosing, trying to figure true north from south versus driving, leading, coaching managing, listening to the voice of the customer, and shaping the executing of the game plan. My rule on high-performing management teams is 90-95% of their time should be spent on actual execution and mid-game strategy, with 5-10% on typical strategic planning. Here are the best tips when it comes to strategy traps and execution.
Make people aware
It is pretty cool when people realize how much time they are wasting on planning vs. doing. I typically just tell people and teams my observations, “you guys are spending over 50% of your time trying to figure out what to do next…does that seem right?”
Change their expectations
Once people understand they should be spending 5-10% of their time on strategic planning, they typically drive to 5-10%. I become their strategy trap coach, asking them at the end of every day or every week, “what percentage of your day or week did you spend on strategy vs. execution.” “Why?” “How can you reduce the strategy trap?”
Fix the root cause: A strategic vision and plan
Organizations or teams stuck in the strategy trap are typically a bit lost or unsure of their path forward. It’s ok; we’ve all been there. Create shorter-term plans, often, for the next three months. What are the highest priority actions to get done? Put them on paper, get the teams going, and execute. In the meantime, figure out what your long-term strategy is and the subsequent strategic vision and plans to get there.
Put a stake in the ground on top strategic questions
Sometimes companies find themselves in the strategy trap because there isn’t awareness, a plan, or closure on core strategic questions. The team is continuously debating the same strategic questions and topics. Some topics I’ve seen that create strategy traps involve:
o Who are our core customers? What are their needs?
o Which products and services should we build?
o What are the significant opportunities to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the organization?
These are critical strategic questions. The issue is, if there isn’t alignment or clear direction on these questions, they fester, like open wounds, never healing. Simply answer them as best as you can and move on.