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False dichotomies and the noise before defeat

I was reading yet another blog post the other day about how, in today's fast-changing world, execution is more important than strategy. That strategy has somehow become irrelevant, even. I find such articles to be a bit unhelpful. As unhelpful as the similarly argued ones about how culture trumps strategy.

The problem is that they are based on a false dichotomy. That is, they assume that we need to choose strategy OR execution (OR culture). The reality is, we need strategy AND execution (AND culture, etc.) to succeed.

Arguing that execution is more important than strategy is like arguing that the heart is more important than the lungs. Without the lungs, the heart would pump unoxygenated blood, and we'd die. Without the heart, the oxygenated blood would not circulate, and we'd die just as quickly.

The film, Titanic, gives a great example of what happens when you focus too much on execution and not enough on strategy. The journey starts off splendidly. So much so, that the captain orders the crew to increase speed so that they can arrive in New York ahead of schedule. Execution was humming. 

Unfortunately, all that extra speed just meant that they hit that iceberg even harder!

What they lacked was strategy: a process which might have resulted in them identifying and anticipating icebergs earlier, loading more lifeboats, sticking to the planned speed, charting a different course for New York, etc.

Execution without strategy simply takes your business in the wrong direction more quickly.

The saying, often misattributed to Sun Tzu, goes:

Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.

Yes, it is true that the world we live in now is quite different from the world in which the authors of the classic texts on strategy lived. But a read of Sun Tzu's 2,500-year-old text, The Art of War, shows that many things remain remarkably the same.

One thing that has changed is the very pace of change itself. New ideas spread more rapidly now than they ever have before. But the pace of change has been accelerating since at least the invention of the printing press. And we can only expect that it will continue to accelerate. So, in a sense, even this is nothing new.

The accelerating pace of change makes the importance of strategy even greater than before, and certainly not less. To suggest that we abandon strategy in the face of accelerating change is a folly akin to suggesting a driver closes his eyes whenever the car exceeds a certain speed. (Tweet this) At higher speeds, we need better systems for sensing, anticipating and responding to what is coming. And, as the case with cars illustrates, we need to increasingly rely on technology to do so.

In short, strategy needs to evolve alongside everything else. It should not be abandoned or subjugated.

So, let's be done with false dichotomies. Let's accept that we need strategy AND execution (AND culture, and a whole host of other things). Let's redouble our efforts to do develop and execute better strategies even more effectively.

See also:

photo credit: 3279461836 via photopin (license)

1 comment:

Paul C said...

Agreed. You shouldn’t have to make a choice. The other one I’ve heard recently is that we’re too busy right now to ‘do the strategy’.