“However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.”—Sir Winston Churchill, former Prime Minister of the U.K.
“Building a visionary company requires one percent vision and 99 percent alignment.” — Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, American authors of Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies.
As with so many other things, business has borrowed the concepts of “strategy” and “tactics” from military and games theory, where the two are typically regarded as discrete if interrelated topics. When business still moved at human speed, we could afford to consider them separately. In the Electronics Era, we no longer can.
We need to perceive tactics and strategy as what they truly are: points on an Execution Continuum, along with several other critical elements, that can advance from one to another so fast we rarely have time to consider them alone anymore. While they are in fact identifiably distinct factors, they’re so tightly interrelated that there’s no point in pursuing one without the others.
I perceive the Execution Continuum (EC) as going something like this:
Mission/Vision → Goal → Strategy → Tactics → Execution
These elements are necessary, solid, and measurable—though not always visible to the outsider. Indeed, in a competitive environment, some of these elements should remain invisible to those outside the organization. As ancient Chinese military theorist Sun-Tzu states in his classic The Art of War, “All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.”
We know very little about Sun-Tzu today. He was born about 544 B.C. in the southeastern Chinese state of Wu, long before China became a single nation. He served his king as a military general and strategist, so successfully that his book has influenced Asian politics and military action for more than 2,500 years. Some observers even credit it with stimulating China’s push to world power in the 21st century. As an individual, Sun-Tzu was incredibly ruthless even with his own soldiers, willing to execute officers who could not or would not train their troops to unquestionably follow their orders.
While that won’t fly in the modern business world, a leader must have a complete understanding of the EC and exercise effective control over it, preferably through engaging and empowering their people in ways that assure effective strategic execution. With this in mind, let’s take a closer look at the individual components of the EC, and how they all fit together.
1. Mission/Vision. A Mission Statement succinctly describes what a company does to achieve its Vision, i.e. its ultimate purpose for existing. Mission and Vision are incomplete without each other, and they often merge into a single concise statement: for example, “To leverage new computing power to create the most useful business software applications in America.” Mission/Vision acts as both the origin of the EC and the foundation it rests upon. It may or may not be influenced by Core Values, though that foundation is often already in place. In our example, the organization’s core values may be a belief that software applications should be powerful but inexpensive and easy to use.
2. Goal. This represents the specific target or objective you’re shooting for, stemming from your Mission/Vision. For the one outlined above, one goal might be to create a new business spreadsheet software called Boxlets that works on all computer platforms and outperforms all existing competitors.
3. Strategy. This is your long-term plan or methodology for achieving your Goal. There is usually more than one strategy advanced to achieve the goal. In the above example, it may include everything from market research to budgeting, selecting a programming language to use, coding the modules, and compiling the actual Boxlets program, all based on a specific schedule for achieving each objective. The workers involved should be fully informed about, invested in, and committed to the strategy, so they can better align their efforts towards its completion. Different parts of the organization are often focused on different strategies.
4. Tactics are the methods you use to achieve your strategy. For Boxlets, that might include hiring coders, creating each module, using pre-existing modules to shortcut the development process, fitting those modules together, testing the code, fixing bugs, and similar tasks.
5. Execution. This represents the culmination of the Execution Continuum, the fruition of the strategy and actual implementation of the multiple projects defined by each tactic and the tasks and subtasks that comprise each. This is the “doing” part of the continuum and the rapid adjustments made when the plan doesn’t mesh with reality. In our case study, effective execution would mean the successful release of Boxlets. Whether Boxlets manages to push the other spreadsheets off the market is another matter altogether, driven by product quality and another EC based on marketing and sales.
Short Circuiting the Process
The title of my upcoming book (March 2014), Execution IS the Strategy, evokes the new normal—where the rapid pace of modern business causes the EC to collapse, so it seems we go straight from Goal to Execution in many cases. Strategy and Tactics still have their place, but they’re foreshortened, often no more than blips in the process. We no longer have time to fashion grand long-term five-year strategies as we once did. Now, we must employ whatever comes to hand and makes the most sense, based on the previous experience of those working on the front lines. We must rev the engine of empowerment, giving the team a free hand to choose the right strategy and tactics to get the job done, executing on the spot for the benefit of the organization.
What have you done in your organization to shorten the EC?