BCG Henderson Institute

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Peter Drucker said: “Plans are only good intentions unless they immediately degenerate into hard work.”  This and a slew of similar maxims reflect a common view of strategy execution: that it’s distinct from strategy, harder to pull off than defining a strategy, and therefore more critical to success — underpinned by seemingly indisputable virtues such as diligence, discipline, consistency, alignment, and focus. But such a simplistic view of execution can be misleading and can reduce actual impact.

In fact, several frequently observed traps result from such a view of execution:

  1. Losing the plot. Action plans and Gantt charts can span many pages in pursuit of precision and concreteness. But excessive complexity can undermine thoughtful execution as much as a failure to specify tactics. In the worst case, busyness can become an implicit goal or cultural norm, and the original strategic intent can be lost in a frenzy of detail and activity. Execution must be insightfully focused on the most critical aspects of a challenge, or those which unlock other critical actions. For example, if category expansion is critical to value creation in a particular strategy, plans should focus disproportionally on how to achieve this. For example, former Mars’ president Paul Michaels shares in Your Strategy Needs a Strategy: “The job of strategy for a segment leader like us is to drive category growth, and that’s the thing you should be thinking about all the time.”
  2. Metric obsession. Drucker’s exhortation, “What gets measured gets managed” is often invoked when approaching execution. In the sense that results count, and their quantification is desirable, it seems irrefutable. But the worst way to achieve a goal can sometimes be to pursue it directly. For example, new drugs are not discovered by pursuing a target number of new drugs, but rather by exploring new areas of chemistry and biology. It is also be a mistake to restrict ourselves to managing what we can easily measure. Few would deny the importance of corporate culture, for example, even though it is not easily quantifiable.
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