“Vision without execution is hallucination." –Thomas Edison
With just five words, Edison concisely summarized a common business problem.
Many firms have detailed, thoughtful and costly business plans; but without strategic execution, they remain simply plans. Strategic execution is the “missing link” between goal making and goal achievement. A simple concept in theory, but difficult to accomplish in dynamic business environments. Strategic execution is the central focus of Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan’s book, Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done.
In the words of Bossidy and Charan, “Execution is a systematic way of exposing reality and acting on it.”
Poor execution is very humbling for business leaders and one of the main reasons brilliant strategies don’t always lead to stellar business results. Unfortunately, our business schools and MBA programs generally overemphasize strategy and give short shrift to execution.
Strategic execution is best viewed not as a single entity, but rather as the integrated linkage of three distinct processes: “The strategic process defines where a business wants to go, and the people process defines who’s going to get it there. The operating plan provides the path for those people.”
The Strategy Process
Strategic execution begins with the strategy process, focusing on an overriding vision or aspirational future state of a business unit and its associated goals. Strategy is directional and lays out where the business unit is now, where it will be going in the future, and the three to five basic elements of how the business will get there.
The Operations Process
The operations process defines the specific steps, initiatives, tactics and milestones needed to carry out the strategic elements. Bossidy and Charan recommend, “A robust operating process, centered on an operating plan that links strategy and people to results.” A strong operations process descends from a well-conceived strategy process, providing the roadmap for a team to know what to do, and just as importantly what not to do, to stay on strategy.
The People Process
The people process and plan is the most important of the three processes. Strategy provides the framework to consider operational choices, but the people process is critical for successful strategic execution because the people create the strategy and implement the operating plans.
In the concise words of Bossidy and Charan, “If you don’t get the people process right, you will never fulfill the potential of your business.”
In fact, a leader’s most important job is selecting and appraising people—getting the right people in the right roles, doing the right things at the right time. The people process begins by defining the capabilities needed to execute the operating plan. Individual team member goals cascade down from the operating plan, ensuring the seamless integration of the strategy, operating plan, and people processes.
The people process is the vital linkage between strategy and the operating plan. This is why individual, team, and organizational alignment are so critical and internal business relationships profoundly impact execution and business results.
Disciplined strategic execution drives results—enabling firms to increase revenues, reduce costs, and lower risk. We agree with the wisdom of Winston Churchill who reminds us, "No matter how beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results."
Written by: Brad Mitchell (President) and Hadley Mitchell (Intern)
Photo courtesy of Sebastiaan ter Burg.