Playing To Win
Why ‘Execution’ is a Bankrupt Management Concept
Over the past couple of months, I have had one conversation after another about the central importance of execution in business. Argh! I have an increasingly deep sense that I am fighting a losing battle on this front and have the voice of my late and magnificent mother in my head reminding me that not all battles are winnable. That notwithstanding, I have decided to kick off Year III of the Playing to Win/Practitioner Insights (PTW/PI) series with Why ‘Execution’ is a Bankrupt Management Concept: It is Logically Indefensible AND Bad for You. You can find the previous 111 PTW/PI here.
The Deeply Entrenched Concept of Execution
Execution is one of the most deeply entrenched concepts in all of management, almost as entrenched as the view that earning a profit is better than suffering a loss. The core structure of the concept is that one should first formulate a strategy and then ensure that it is executed.
The reason this conceptualization is so entrenched is that it is underpinned by a metaphor that is utterly familiar to every human. In humans, the brain decides, and the arms & legs do what the brain has decided. Ergo, top management (acting as the brain) decides strategy and rank & file workers (acting as arms & legs) execute. Nothing could be simpler or more compelling to humans than to analogize to their conception of themselves (whether that conception is actually an accurate reflection of how the brain and body work is another story, but I will let that slide).
The Desire Behind Execution is Meritorious
It is indeed a meritorious view that thought must translate into action to be at all useful. I had that pounded deeply into my brain by my beloved mentor, the late Chris Argyris, who saved his harshest criticism for management advice on which the recipient can’t take action. Check here and here for his terrific books on the subject.
I think it is fair to declare that strategy choice upon which action does not take place is, by definition, bad strategy. This begs the question if I am such a big fan of action, why do I despise the strategy versus execution distinction so much and write about my antipathy repeatedly, for example in Harvard Business Review and in PTW/PI here and here?
There are two reasons: I don’t like business concepts that are logically indefensible, and moreover, I don’t like logically indefensible ones that are bad for you.
To be defensible, there has to be a difference between the activities in which managers engage when doing ‘strategy’ versus ‘execution.’ For example, it is logically defensible to call one thing ‘plastering’ and another thing ‘painting’ if in plastering, a worker uses a trowel to apply gypsum paste to a wall to make it smooth, while in painting, a worker uses a paint brush to apply a pigmented liquid to a wall to leave a decorative coating. Those should have two different names because they involve doing different things. If instead you called them the same thing — frumping — and the foreman said to a worker “go frump that wall,” the worker wouldn’t know whether to take trowel or a paintbrush. The two things need two different names because they involve different activities. If instead we wanted one thing to happen — a wall to be painted — and we say to one worker “please plaster that wall” and the other “please paint that wall,” we would have a mess on our hands.
In the same way, if strategy and execution involve different activities, they should have different names. But, if they involve the same activities, they should not have different names.
What, then, is involved in the activity which we call ‘strategy?’ I think that everyone would agree that the central activity is making choices, and furthermore, making said choices under uncertainly, competition, and constraints. If execution is indeed distinct from strategy, the activity must not centrally involve making choices under uncertainty, competition, and constraints. It must involve some sort of choiceless doing, in which the person receiving the instruction to execute is given the moral equivalent of a cookbook recipe — collect exactly these ingredients; then measure out these exact amounts of each; then mix them in this sequence; then cook/bake at exactly this temperature for this long, etc. A cookbook recipe, in essence, is a tool for suppressing choice. (And parenthetically, strict use of cooking recipes creates consistent but mediocre outcomes.)
In four decades of watching, I have never seen a senior executive hand off the task of ‘executing my strategy’ along with a recipe. Almost without fail, they hand them off with desired outcomes specified — and with OKRs or KPIs set out to measure performance. In terms of instructions, they tend to be general and outcome oriented, such as ‘penetrate the European market,’ or ‘differentiate on customer service’ or ‘become the most trusted supplier to that customer segment,’ or ‘be the innovation leader in that product category,’ etc. But there is never a recipe (or anything even close) provided that eliminates the need for choice (under uncertainty, competition, and constraints) by the subordinate who is notionally ‘executing.’ That is, of course, why ‘execution’ is difficult. Cooking using a recipe isn’t. Cooking without following a recipe is — that is why people who do so are called ‘chefs’ not ‘line cooks.’
So, the distinction/duality is logically indefensible. Both strategy and execution at their core involve making choices under uncertainty, competition, and constraints.
Bad for You
If conceptualizing strategy as distinct from execution was logically indefensible, but benign, I would just leave it alone, as I do many logically indefensible but benign things in business.
But I believe fervently that it is very bad for business. The primary reason is that it sets up a destructive and illusory hierarchy with ‘strategy’ being the important and high-skill activity and ‘execution’ the rote, boring one. But this then creates the necessity for all sorts of defensive logical gymnastics to attempt to make ‘executers’ feel better. So, we have popular nostrums like “a mediocre strategy well executed outperforms a great strategy poorly executed.” That is supposed to make ‘executers’ feel better about having been given a job that is explicitly derivative of and simpler than that of ‘strategists.’ However, no one has ever been able to explain to me how one would know that a strategy was great if the results of deploying it are so bad that they are described as manifesting ‘poor execution.’ I am one of the world’s foremost strategy practitioners and I have no idea how I would make the judgement that a strategy was ‘great’ if in practice it failed miserably. In truth, the ‘great strategy badly executed’ is found on the planet as frequently as other mythical creatures like the Sasquatch, Yeti and Lock Ness Monster.
The ‘executors’ aren’t fooled by such rhetorical flourishes. They know that if they make great choices under uncertainty, competition, and constraints, the ‘strategists’ will be credited with ‘great strategy.’ But if they do what the conceptualization suggests and engage in rote choiceless doing, they will be blamed for ‘bad execution.’ Still alternatively, if the strategy is just plain stupid and there is nothing that they can do to save it, they will also be blamed for ‘bad execution.’
It is an insulting and demoralizing conceptualization: no amount of lipstick will make it less of a pig. It creates a no-win situation for the ‘executers’ and a free ride for the ‘strategists,’ who can always claim brilliance and, when necessary, blame the incompetence of ‘executers.’ I believe this conceptualization is a key contributor to the incredibly low Gallup employee engagement results — only one in three US employees is engaged in the success of their organizations. I can absolutely understand and empathize with the two-thirds of managers who are tired of being demeaned and insulted.
On this front, I had a very enlightening and affirming podcast conversation recently with ex-Navy Seal Mark Divine who assured me that the Seals have long since dispensed with the strategy v. execution delusion — because it gets Seals killed. Seal Commanders know that they can’t set a strategy that the Seal Team executes. They know, absolutely, that at each step of the mission, Seal Team members will need to make choices under enormous uncertainty, deadly competition, and crushing constraints (typically the tiniest amount of time). There is no recipe for success. Commanders can make some important strategic choices (on the mission goal, how and when to attack, what resources to provide, etc.) but as the adage goes, that strategy will be perfect until such time as it encounters the enemy and then further choices of extreme performance will need to be made. Seal Team members know both that they must make critical, real-time battlefield choices, and that they are supported in making them, not insulted by being told they are ‘executing the brilliant strategy’ of the Commander.
It’s Turtles All the Way Down
There is a much more productive way to conceptualize how action takes place in business than strategy versus execution. For it, I take inspiration from the lady in the probably apocryphal Bertrand Russell story. According to the story, the famous British philosopher had an exchange with an audience member who contradicted his view of astronomy by claiming that the earth doesn’t float in space but rather sits on top of a giant turtle. Russell, thinking he could quickly dispatch the lady’s argument, asked her on what the turtle was resting, to which, according to the story, she cheekily responded “It’s turtles all the way down.”
In strategy, it is also turtles all the way down. From the top of the corporation to its base, it is all choices under uncertainty, competition, and constraints. That is the simple reality. But it scares most executives because they believe that this conceptualization will lead to utter chaos. The only way to avoid disaster is for the top to define strategy and then enforce its execution.
Again, that is the power of the dominant conceptualization. It makes it profoundly scary to think any other way. But it doesn’t have to be. The current conceptualization is what drives chaos in the modern large corporation — disenfranchised workers at all levels doing something other than what they are told they should be doing and are in fact doing. It is this chaos that blocks big companies from productively exploiting their size.
Counterintuitively, the job of senior executives becomes easier when they see their job not as making decisions for everybody but rather to making a very few decisions and chartering the vast majority of choices to others who are in a better position to make them — like Navy Seals on a mission. I don’t give advice that I don’t use myself and I used this approach to lead the dramatic turnaround of the Rotman School, which I discuss at length in a recent podcast with Agile’s Sohrab Salimi.
Execution is properly an indirect concept, as Aristotle explained with respect to happiness. To paraphrase Aristotle, one doesn’t achieve happiness by attempting to be happy. Happiness arises indirectly out of living a virtuous life. Equivalently, focusing your attention on persuading your people to execute your strategy is not the way to achieve ‘execution.’ Creating a false distinction and then demeaning your people is not the path to success.
Instead, choose the success path of companies like Toyota, Haier and Four Seasons. To get great things done in your organization, work to be great at choice chartering. Embrace the fact that people across your whole organization need to make great choices to have great outcomes. It will probably feel scary at first, like having your ski instructor get you to put your weight on the downhill ski. But in due course, it will make your organization stronger, happier, and more successful — and make you a much better boss.