Manhattan Bridge under construction-1909

Strategy vs. Execution: What is strategy anyway?

Forrest ChristianChange Leave a Comment

Let’s continue our look at strategy vs. execution with a further look at what strategy is.

Most business people seem to use “strategy” to mean “reasons that we do something” or “basis for our decision-making”. Execution builds the car while strategy says what car to build, or whether you should build a car at all at this time. You can execute flawlessly by building the car perfectly but still have no one buy it. You can also have a “great strategy”, so to speak, that no one in your company can actually put into reality.

The core problem is that “strategy” usually means “the context for our acting”. This means that both Strategy and Execution are relative. They look different at different levels in the corporation. In one way, my boss’s tactics becomes my strategy. As Nick Forrest (no relation) of Forrest and Company observes in a forthcoming book, one of the key purposes of the hierarchy is to cascade the strategic intent down the organization, setting context for the work of the next level down.

Thinking this way, the strategy vs. execution debate is simply stupid. My boss’s tactics become my strategy for my execution.

Deloitte’s Michael Raynor adds real flesh to the strategy debate in his The Strategy Paradox: Why Committing to Success Leads to Failure (And What to do About It). He argues that what we mean by “strategy” at the corporate level is really about managing what he calls strategic uncertainty. The higher you go up the organization the more uncertainty becomes salient. At low levels, there is very little uncertainty that needs managing. At the higher levels of global companies, almost all work is managing strategic uncertainty. His argument is brilliant and transforms the discussion from screeds to intellect.

Manhattan Bridge under construction-1909. Library of Congress

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