Over 10 years ago Larry Bossidy, former CEO of Honeywell, and Ram Charan, an academic and consultant, wrote the book Execution, The Discipline of Getting Things Done. As a student of strategy, I read it quickly.
One thing kept gnawing at me, though, that still gnaws at me today. Get what done?
In November, Rosabeth Moss Kantor, a professor at Harvard Business School wrote an article in Harvard Business Review titled Smart Leaders Focus on Execution First and Strategy Second. The corollary being that stupid leaders focus on strategy first.
She ends the article with this bromide: "In short, encourage innovation, begin with execution, and name the strategy later."
To which I say: bullshit!
In fact, if HBR bothered to search their own site, they would read a well thought out article called The Execution Trap. Perhaps the author, Roger Martin, a former University of Toronto professor and Dr. Kantor could battle it out in an educator's cage match.
Let me tell you a true story of a recent soccer injury to my daughter. She was diagnosed by the team doctor with one condition, and the team trainers put together a program to reduce her pain during and after games. Their treatment did not work.
After the season, she went to our family practitioner. More tests. The result was a different diagnosis. She had been misdiagnosed by the team physician. No matter how well my daughter and the trainers executed on the treatment plan, they were treating the wrong ailment.
Reminds me of Bain & Co.'s Michael Mankins quote:
"If you have a bad strategy, no amount of good execution will help."
When you get in your car in the morning to travel to a place where you do not know how to get there, what do you do? Punch in the address on your GPS, and build your route to that destination from your garage. Not so if you don't think the destination matters. So long as you execute turns, navigate traffic, and follow signs extremely well. No matter where you end up, it matters only if you drove there well. C'mon.
In more practical terms, if a bank's head of branches is building development plans for branch managers, they make choices. For example, should branch managers have small business banking in their curriculum, or retail wealth management? One would think that they would turn to their strategy to make the decision. If the bank's strategy is to be the top business bank in the markets where they have branches, the answer is clear. But without strategy, either can be correct, so long as the branch manager does well.
There are areas of Dr. Kantor's article in which I agree with her. For example, "we found the perfect strategy" is a statement that has the credibility of "and they lived happily ever after". Chasing the perfect strategy is a fools game.
Chasing no strategy is the same, in my opinion. However, once a strategic direction is struck, the bank should build flexible processes to allow for alterations of course based on customer preferences, markets, and team capabilities.
In fact, I agree with Dr. Kantor's four implementation imperatives:
1. Question everything
2. Inform everyone, then empower champions
3. Keep relationships tight, and rules loose
4. Modify quickly
All are execution imperatives. But without strategic direction, the zigging and zagging would waste resources to the point of ineffectiveness.
Yes, Dr. Kantor, strategy matters.
P.S. All this talk about execution reminds me of John McCay, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach. I couldn't find the YouTube video of his quote, but here is Rick Carlisle, former Dallas Mavericks head coach delivering it brilliantly.