Time for less talk, more action

ChrisHirstBusiness strategy means nothing if industry leaders lack the willingness, courage and commitment to execute the detail effectively, says Chris Hirst

When Lou Gerstner took the helm of IBM in the depths of its despair in 1993, he was widely lambasted for saying the last thing the company needed was another strategy. On a closer reading, what he actually said was not that it didn’t need a strategy, but that the company’s problem lay not in developing great strategies, but in its willingness and ability to implement them. In other words, less talking about it and more getting on with doing some stuff, please.

Of course, Gerstner famously re-invented Big Blue and in his words – received with derision by the press at the time – lies a moral for us all. If I had a penny for every junior who in their annual review said they felt they needed to be more involved in “strategy” I’d be a rich man.

These days, everybody wants to be a Big Ideas Guy and it is distinctly unfashionable to want to be the person who rolls up their sleeves and actually gets stuff done. The phenomenon is interesting because as the guru’s guru, Peter Drucker said: “Ultimately, all strategy devolves into work.” At the end of the day somebody has to get up from their desk, unwrap the towel from their head and make some stuff happen.

I am not arguing against the business changing power of vision and innovation, but I believe that a strategy is nothing without the courage and ability to implement it. The problem is that implementation is the scary bit, for a project leader often a lonely process and for employers something that it’s hard to find people who are good at. Few ideas are unique, yet many ideas can be enormously effective through smart, efficient and effective execution.

Whole industries have sprung up to try and make it easier. Consultants and market researchers reassure you (or those you work for) of the solidity of your thinking, but neither can remove the risks you must take for a project to succeed. Execution is about more than just getting stuff done, it is about a deep understanding of the full implications of the strategy and the willingness to rise to this challenge.

I believe there is a significant under-appreciation of the power of immaculate business execution and an equivalent over-emphasis on strategy as an end in itself. In some ways I think there is an element of intellectual snobbery around this – “you must be cleverer if you’re a strategist” – but I think the truth is that execution is scarier, often more difficult and can take many years to come to fruition.

Great execution requires intelligence, teamwork, energy, perseverance and more. However, more than that, there is a potential personal cost to execution which organisations do not do enough to understand and mitigate. It’s easy to say it’s OK to fail, but how often is that true?In addition, we do too little to prepare and train people for the personal challenges great strategic implementation demands of them and their teams. We laud great thinking, but spend too little time working through the true challenges and realities of its full implications and the importance of urgency and momentum in its implementation. Like IBM, we spend too long thinking, making sure we really understand the problem, and not enough time doing; too often we get decisions wrong just by making them too late.

Great strategy is the difference between being a Wal-Mart and a Sears, but the execution of a great strategy requires of leaders great personal courage, the willingness to take risks and the preparedness to fail in the pursuit of success. And I believe it is these personal and often public aspects of execution which derail so many projects and which the “theoretical” side of leadership training often misses entirely.

How often do we find ourselves looking back on a project and feeling it fell short of the lofty ambitions of the strategy – was it the wrong strategy or did we lack the courage and skill to really make that strategy a reality?It is time we recognised execution for what it is – scary, tough and risky. And those who have the balls to do it well for what they are – the difference between a clever bit of thinking and real market success. Perhaps then we’ll get used to sitting in review meetings with people asking how they can become one of those people who just gets stuff done. vChris Hirst, UK managing director, Grey

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