Strategy Needs Execution

Postmodern marketing breaks down traditional barriers, especially between the enterprise inside and customers outside. It also shows us how other traditional divisions can be eliminated. The distinction between strategy and execution is perhaps one of the oldest such binary oppositions. It's so common that it seems unquestionable. Indeed, many firms identify themselves as doing one or the other... and they claim that not only is that possible, it's for the benefit of their customers. I don't agree. I don't think you can have one without the other. Earlier, we talked about how execution needs strategy. This is fairly noncontroversial. Most everyone will accept that execution depends on strategy. Indeed, this linear dependency is at the very foundation of the businesses of consulting, marketing (strategy), design (execution), and technology (execution). Today, I'd like to complete the apparent circle and write about how strategy needs execution. This isn't circular. At least not viciously so. Rather, it's more hermeneutical. By this, I mean that strategy and execution are deeply interrelated. It's not possible to understand one without the other. As we saw earlier, most people accept that execution needs strategy to be meaningful. And the converse is also true. Strategy needs execution to be meaningful. At first this might seem confusing. Doesn't strategy come first? How can strategy be informed by execution if the execution hasn't even happened yet? This is not a solid objection, for the objection itself depends on a model that assumes that strategy and execution are distinct from each other and there is a one-way linear relationship between them. It is this model (the one at the root of all professional services) that must be destroyed. Strategy is the idea, the concept. Call it a form or a plan. The simple idea is that it is empty of content, of matter, of material. It is abstract. Supposedly, it is possible to perceive and contemplate this abstract strategy without embodying it in execution. This is the premise where the model falls apart. It is not possible to contemplate a strategy without an execution. This is so because the execution gives "life" to the strategy. Matter gives life to ideas. Without execution, strategy is empty (just as execution without strategy is blind). Only when strategy and execution are understood together can we conceive of either one. The implication of this is that there are no projects that are only strategy or only execution. To be sure, there may be a pre-existing strategic effort (that always already will have included an execution of some kind). But this really means that a previous strategic execution will be replaced (or transformed) by a new strategic execution. This dual nature is at the root of common problems on projects. How many times have you been proceeding from strategy to execution only to find that the strategizers already had some (perhaps secret, perhaps unspoken) conception of what the execution would be? They couldn't help it! When they did the strategy, they implictly did the execution. A further inference is that there are no (effective) companies that are just strategic or just execution-oriented. They are either secretly doing one or the other or they are hopelessly ineffective. How much money has been wasted on a "stand-alone" strategy or a hastily-planned execution? When not conceived as a whole, both strategy and execution will be wasted. And so, strategy needs execution, just as execution needs strategy. Keep that in mind when you're doing your own projects and when you're hiring out. You'll save a lot of time and hassle when you ground your projects in the reality of this duality.