Strategy vs Execution: Which is the more important and why?

“Successful people start before they feel ready.” – attributed to Sir Richard Branson

I like to ask groups that I am working with which is the more important: Strategy or Execution? This always results in a highly animated discussion about why strategy is the more important of the two. If the strategy is not in place to be executed how can you be sure you will achieve the desired outcomes and results? Good common sense thinking. Then, one person in the room will say “but they’re both important you can’t have one without the other.” I like this response because it is a sign of intelligence as they haven’t accepted the question in the binary form that it was asked i.e. Strategy or Execution (A or B). They have moved to Strategy and Execution (A and B). So for those people I have a secondary and more challenging question which is: “Of the two, Strategy and Execution, which one is the more important and why?” Then we have an even more animated and by now passionate discussion.

Of course life is not binary. Consider the Strategy-Execution matrix above. On the vertical axis is Strategy with Poor Strategy at the bottom and Great Strategy at the top and on the horizontal axis is Execution with Poor Execution being on the left and Effective Execution being on the right creating four quadrants.

Question: Where is the best place to be and why? Quadrant 1, 2, 3 or 4?

The obvious answer: Clearly, the goal is to be in quadrant 2 – Great Strategy / Effectively Executed. No question. Easy! But not so easy to do!

The less obvious question is: what is the second best quadrant to be in and why? Essentially this comes down to a choice of two possibilities. Quadrant 4 – Poor Strategy / Effectively Executed, or quadrant 1 – Great Strategy / Poorly Executed and here again the room is divided into which is the better quadrant to be in, 1 or 4?

The not so obvious answer: The answer is quadrant 4 where execution is the key to success because that allows us in the case of a poor strategy to fail fast and the faster we can fail the quicker we can move to a recovery plan to adapt, change, reformulate or replace the strategy, and go through the cycle again. Failing is an opportunity to start over, to re-assess and to learn. So the second best option is to be in quadrant 4, to execute quickly and effectively on a poor or emerging strategy.

“When in doubt, try it out.” Which requires the courage to experiment and permission to fail fast (and recover quickly).

The next best quadrant to be in his quadrant 1 – Great Strategy / Poor Execution. This can be best described as a missed opportunity as we cannot validate if the strategy is good or if it should be adapted, changed, reformulated or replaced.

The quadrant that we want to avoid at all costs is quadrant 3 Poor Strategy / Poor Execution. This is slow death as we cannot determine what is working and what is not working; Strategy or Execution.

Takeaways: Execution is key. Execution is king. When in doubt, try it out. Fail fast, correct, adjust and adapt quickly. Then execute again. This is the new “execute, recalibrate and execute again” adaptive path to success in the digital world.

PS: I worked with a group recently that challenged themselves as a group to assess where they were today on the Strategy-Execution matrix. Responses varied around the room from “we have pockets of execution across the organisation” to ” we are quadrant 4 for some parts of the business and quadrant 1 for others. (No quadrant 2 and no quadrant 3). An extremely insightful self-assessment of their executional performance using this simple 2 x 2 matrix.

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3 Responses to Strategy vs Execution: Which is the more important and why?

  1. Pierre Henri DREVON 25/04/2017 at 9:54 AM #

    Great ! Finaly it takes a few words (and a simple picture) to define clearly this “fundamental” issue !

    Pierre Henri

  2. James Dillon 25/04/2017 at 9:57 AM #

    I like it, David, especially the Agile Proposition of N° 4 and your comments pertaining to it.

    I suppose we are all conditioned to align ourselves according to a binary code question, which misses the point. I wish people could train themselves to “triangulate” and seek a third approach that raises the level of the debate, and perhaps the value of potential solutions.

    Anyway, good going, and hope to see more… and perhaps cross paths again one of these days.

    James Dillon

  3. Chris Harrison 25/04/2017 at 3:36 PM #

    Hi David,
    Nice article which I fully agree with. It highlights clearly 2 key factors.

    1: Quality of execution is key if you want to win. You can have as many plans as you want but you only win big with quality of execution.
    2: You always need a good plan. i.e. you can have a great strategic plan covering every angle but you also need to have the vision and speed of mind to make a simple execution plan when your in Box 4.

    Box 3 for me is clearly the “no go” box. No Strategy, no plan of execution…..don’t waste your time. Too many managers still waste resources and time by going after those opportunities….. I dream of winning Euromillions but the chances are as big as winning business in box 3 🙂

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