Bring Back Public Execution in 2012

Posted on 9th January, 2012

A lot of tough decisions will need to be taken in 2012. In politics, in Washington, Brussels, and in business.


Are we ready? I'm not sure we are.


And that's because of the western hemisphere's obsession with 'strategy', and its concomitant eschewal of execution.


These days, everybody wants to be 'strategic', to work on 'strategy'. Folk are desperate to have the 'S' word in their job title, to be seen as a 'strategic thinker'.


'You must be really good at ideas and strategy, Nick', they say, 'because you're an entrepreneur'. Well, I hope that I can have (and have had) the odd good idea, developed a half-decent strategy. But that's not what makes a successful entrepreneur, or a successful anything. Because being successful - in any walk of life - is ultimately about Getting Things Done.


It's about execution.


But this simple truth is still not recognised by many people.


Why not?


'Strategy', whilst sometimes being intellectually complex, is comfortable. Indeed, 'doing strategy' flatters those of us who believe we have been well-educated. It feeds our egos.


The education point is particularly germane: 'strategy' very often is effectively essay-writing; it's back to school, it's about showing how clever we are, our ability to develop a line and pursue it, overcoming objections and tying up any loose ends in a neat conclusion.


And we, the liberal arts graduates of the big schools of Britain and America, the people who now, in different ways, hold key positions of authority and responsibility, measure each other on our ability to do this. With glee. We love nothing more than an intellectual tussle over a glass of Malbec; it's how we unwind. 'Strategy', and 'strategic thinking', therefore have a disproportionate currency among decision-makers.


This preference for 'strategy' is compounded by the (helpful, if you're a 'strategist') fact that strategy and ideas per se are notoriously difficult to value. It's a deeply subjective affair. And even a half-decent 'strategist' can usually ensure that their 'strategy' is sufficiently malleable and flexible to accommodate a total volte-face, if necessary: We have always been at war with Oceania.


But as well as being comfortable and deliciously vague, 'strategy' - by definition - enjoys the luxurious position of being theoretical. It does not involve sleeves-rolled-up, I'm-ready-to-have-a-difficult-conversation grind. This of course suits a startling amount of many senior people who, as I have written elsewhere, seem to have a cultural 'allergy' to such work.  


Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are especially guilty. Time after time, speech after speech, campaign after campaign their behaviour suggests that they believe, consciously or otherwise, that ideas in themselves are good enough. Depressingly, this is doubly so if those ideas capture the attention of the press and dominate tomorrow's headlines. This is partly because, increasingly, many politicians, of all parties, have never done a real job before entering politics.


But even on the offchance that they do make a brilliant speech, have a fantastic idea or develop a sensible policy, their ability to actually make anything happen is directly dependent on the ability of public servants to execute.


And this compounds the problem - because public servants, certainly the senior ones, often have very little incentive to execute (execution risking measurement, and measurement risking failure), and every incentive to write more papers, to critique, to hold 'strategic offsites' and planning days. Many a latter-day Sir Humphrey might easily have received his or her knighthood for 'services to displacement activities'.


Anglo-American procrastination however, is nothing compared to what we see across the Channel.  The scale of the EuroZone crisis, now over a year old, is such that one might have expected even Nero to buckle down. Yet the people of Europe, not to mention the bond markets, still wait to see real action, as opposed to increasingly vacuous words.


Tragically, the private sector is often little better.  Though the profit motive should naturally predispose corporations to want to Get Things Done, it is surprising just how understandably fatigued Marx's workers of the world are from years of corporate jargon and management 'speak' (note how we call it 'speak', with good reason).


Equally, corporations themselves are fed up of consultants who come in and, at extortionate day rates, elegantly and eloquently define the specific nature of a problem - but have no real interest in sticking around to actually make any difference.


None of this is to say that strategy has no place. That would be absurd. One has to have a clear idea on one's direction of travel, otherwise one can very quickly end up firing shots in the dark or - worse - becoming a busy fool. And we've all met plenty of those. Ideas and creative thinking, as I discussed recently on the Huffington Post, are absolutely vital and might just provide the spark to reignite our cooling economies.


It is simply that ideas alone do not get the baby bathed. Strategy is, to steal from the language of the MBA (itself long on strategy, short on execution), necessary but by no means sufficient. And that is doubly the case when we are - jointly - faced with the scale of the crisis that confronts us all in 2012.


We are not living in 'strategic' times. We are living in 'survival' times, where the only strategy in town is not to go under; as an individual, a business, a nation. Comparisons of our times with those of war are specious, and insulting to those who know what suffering really means. But that doesn't mean we can't learn from more dangerous periods in our histories. Particularly when it comes to execution. 


And in this respect, in 2012 we might do well to remember the pithy words of Lord Nelson, who knew a thing or two about Getting Things Done:-


"Nevermind about manoeuvres, go straight at 'em".


Quite, your Lordship, quite.

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Comments (4)

Very relevant piece in the recession years.

The detail of Getting Stuff Done is certainly far grimier and less sexy than being on board the ideas machine. Mainly because the former inevitably deals with the messy business of managing people which is not a role many relish: it's often viewed as a tedious by-product of rising through the ranks. But no agent provocateur successfully shook up the status quo locked away in an ivory tower.

As you say, it's a balance:
Too much on the design side and it's death by Powerpoint/uber-consensualism, paralysis analysis. Too much on the implementation side and it's no wood for the trees syndrome. You need both sets of people on your team.
MBTI may have its flaws but it does a good job of fleshing out the personality binary of theoretical/imaginative/visionary vs pragmatic/realistic/reliant on experience. If an organisation prefers thinkers or do-ers, strategists or executors, it could do far worse to use the tool to make sure the right people are on board at the right time.
As always Nick you have hit the nail on the head. It is interesting that words like delivery and operational have been de-valued when compared to strategy. Great blog
A post to make us think Nick; which is novel for a monday morning as I am in execution mode (wahat was it you were saying again...?) Two immediate thoughts and quotes dredged from my memory:

Strategy and Events : "Events dear boy events" as MacMillan was supposed to have said as to what can blow a government off course .

Thinking of busy fools, I am reminded of Douglas Adams:

"A common mistake people make when trying to design something foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools." The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy
Very interesting piece, which really resonates with me and the two passions in my life: work as an account director and marathon running. These two things have a common thread that you have hit upon in your post - action (or as you call it execution).

I take great pleasure in advising quite a few people on how to train for endurance running events and in particular marathons. The main thing that frustrates me is the 'strategy' that people become embroiled in: checking heart rates, looking at blood analysis, reading and adapting training programmes, browsing for new kit online, reading and posting in forums, etc. What they need to be doing is, erm, running!

The same happens at work - there are dozens of strategy and planning meetings at the end of which no one is any clearer on what they actually need to do and by when.

The fact is that 'doing' is hard whilst talking about 'doing' and assuming someone else will do it, is easy. But talking, reading and thinking about running will not - I guarantee it - get you to the end of a marathon. Only running will.