The CMO Network on LinkedIn has an interesting discussion sparked by the question: What is your opinion on Execution trumps Strategy?…Do you agree?… This is both a rapid and rabid-responding group, and those who have come down hard on the side of strategy (as they slap-slap the faces of the proletariat executioners), suggest that execution won’t ever distinguish you if the strategy isn’t sound. Fair enough.
As someone who has built a career around designing and executing strategies in the legal industry, I can’t imagine execution without the clear, guiding light of strategy. When it comes to technology implementations (websites, experience databases, proposal centers, CRM tools), the reason that these initiatives are under-serving their firm stakeholders is that there is no strategy driving the execution. I wrote about this a few blog posts ago, while quoting Richard Hsu from King & Spalding.
Every initiative worth investing in demands strategy at the outset. If you can’t clearly articulate what it is, then don’t start your execution – you aren’t ready. It will fail. What does failure look like? Scope that can’t be defined, budgets that increase at all phases, expectations that won’t be met, timelines that extend months or years beyond the original launch date, and dissatisfaction that runs up and down the organization. I have seen this failure side-swipe many careers.
I have also seen “strategy” kill law firms because the firms were ill-advised (i.e., the wrong strategy for the firm) or because the firms didn’t have the commitment to execute (i.e., invest in the right people to do the job).
The first law firm for which I served as marketing director from 1987-1992 hired one of the industry’s largest legal management firms to develop a strategic plan. More than a million dollars later (in 1991-92 dollars), the firm was completely ill-prepared to survive the recession of the early nineties. How the planners could have missed the economic and competitive indicators pointing to the financial collapse of the real estate and banking industries was astonishing to all of us. I never heard what the strategy was supposed to be because I moved on, but the firm failed two years later.
I also believe that one of the most strategic things marketers and IT professionals can do is brilliantly execute. That’s where the results live. I have seen both teams wanting to be defined by how strategic they are, believing that the roll-up-the-sleeves parts of the job are too “blue collar” and that they are somehow a lower-class stepchild of strategy.
Designing a successful execution team is highly strategic. Too often we hire people to fill job openings comprised of job task lists, frequently without fully understanding how their daily work will support broader strategy, or how it will fit into the execution assembly line. The hiring of key law firm positions is often handled so far outside the executive office (and thus removed from firm strategy and goals), firms end up with well-intention people who have no idea what they should be doing. They are given orders by supervisors who are also too far removed from the strategic core of the firm. These new hires are doomed to be unhappy because their execution may never measure up. How can it? It isn’t supporting strategy.
This goes for the hiring of young associates in corporate law firms as well. They are given discrete tasks to complete without a full understanding of what the client hopes to achieve. What opportunity is driving this research? What problem are we hoping to solve? What horizon issue are we hoping to get out in front of? I think, perhaps naively, that attrition among the young associates would lessen if they understood that the work they were doing was tied to a client’s bigger goal or purpose. They could feel a part of something, as opposed to churning hours day after day.
The term “strange bedfellows” was first used in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, when, according to Wikipedia, Trinculo crawls under the cloak of a man he believes to be dead to shelter himself from a storm, saying, “Alas, the storm is come again! My best way is to creep under his gaberdine; there is no other shelter hereabouts: misery acquaints a man with strange bed-fellows.”
Strange bedfellows is defined as “a strange alliance, often formed between parties who would normally be enemies who have come together for a common, often urgent cause.” I posit that brilliant strategy and brilliant execution should be so intertwined that they can’t be separated. There should be no choice of one over the other. They are inextricably linked and both fundamentally essential to the success that we want to achieve.