Closing the Gap Between Strategy and Execution

A central part of my own professional work is improving how we execute strategy. I like how Professor Don Sull describes his perspective on the reasons why traditional execution of strategy (a linear process of plan, implement, and sustain) is so often done poorly. He points out that many leaders like this approach because it gives them the illusion of control.

He summarizes three reasons why the linear approach to strategy execution is so poor:

  • Separating strategy formulation from strategy execution: The best strategic information often arises in the course of execution and is not flowed into the strategy.
  • Linear view of strategy tends to escalate commitment to a failed course of action, that is, the tendency to plow ahead even as negative data continues to mount. The leader stands up and says “I have a strategy and it is right” and stakes their reputation on the direction. If new bad news comes in, it is too painful to admit that their failed strategy is wrong because of ego, and consequently the quality of execution is blamed.
  • A linear view of strategy misses issues of timing, specifically nuances in adjusting the timing of execution to account for real-time events. Also, many strategies simply speak about executing with “raw speed” and rush through implementation. If you implement a poor strategy fast, “you’re just going to get to the wrong place quickly.” He also points out the limitation of trying to anticipate a priori all the things that could wrong, versus adjusting strategy as things unfold in response to events and new information.

I very much agree with Professor Sull’s thinking that the best strategy execution is iterative where organizations continually cycle between doing, reflecting, and updating the plan. I point out that this approach to strategy already is well-proven at the level of tactics, namely things like Plan-Do-Check-Act, or Plan-Communicate-Act-Debrief. The key is that these steps are not performed once, but iterated.

Note: Dr. Sull mentions in video 2 the “Boyd loop”, which is reference to the OODA loop (for observe, orient, decide, and act) and was developed by military strategist and USAF Colonel John Boyd.

Ironically, I think Dr. Sull’s description of the merits of the iterative approach to strategy execution is inadvertently a positive for the “process-based management” approach that he felt was too inflexible in his videos on Promise-based execution (see: Promised Based Management). In other words, his assumptions about process-based management were rooted in a mistaken view that many people have that process is rigid, whereas in these videos Dr. Sull is correctly pointing out how iterative processes like PDCA, PCAD or OODA lend themselves to flexibility and for continually course correction and incorporation of new insights, events and information.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3: