Strategy Without Execution Is an Illusion

06/14/2010 09:46 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

I spent most of a day last week participating in developing a strategy for a leading American software company as it seeks to expand in the rapidly growing health care market. We spent hours defining the business we were in and the many businesses we were not in. We identified the competitive landscape and assessed who would be our friends and our foes. At the end of the session we had a clearly defined mission and a concise understanding of the direction in which we were proceeding. In other words, a general strategy. A subsequent meeting was scheduled to turn the strategy into activities that would combine to create sustainable competitive advantage. Measurable goals and strategic initiatives would be developed with time lines and individual champions assigned to each. At the end of the meeting one participant commented that we were on the road toward accomplishing the easy part of our task--developing a strategy--and the hard part--executing the strategy--still lay ahead.

Within hours validation for the comment arrived. First, a friend sent me a recent article by Thomas A. Stewart which highlighted a Harvard Business Review compendium on strategy. The topic of execution comprised half the volume. Stewart commented that although execution without strategy is useless ( a point that is routinely made by those of us who teach strategy) without a deep commitment to implementation, strategy is equally useless.

A few minutes later a glance at the Boston Red Sox game where David Ortiz had just hit a home run added fuel to the fire. I had recently attended a game at Fenway Park with Michael Porter, who is, among other things, Senior Strategy Advisor for the Red Sox. Not many baseball teams have a strategist like Porter as an advisor and I suspect that very few actually have a clearly articulated strategy at all but the Red Sox have been known for sometime as a pioneer in bringing disparate ideas to bear on the business of major league baseball. The team even has a mission statement that clearly articulates its goals and these are often broken into metrics by members of management. Still, as the season began the team was mired in a deep slump because of a lack of execution. Ortiz, among others, wasn't hitting, the outfield was decimated by injuries and something was out of kilter with the team's ace pitcher, Josh Beckett. As a result, the stated approach of winning with great pitching, strong defense and a modicum of power hitting coming primarily from the middle of the lineup was not working. Beginning in May, Ortiz started hitting, Clay Bucholz and Jon Lester took up the slack for Beckett, and the the bullpen performed remarkably. As a result, what appeared to be a failed approach a few weeks earlier was beginning to look better..

The next day, the proofs for my new book with Holden Thorp, Engines of Innovation, arrived. As I looked over the pages for the last time it became clear that virtually all of the innovations we highlighted and all of the educational leaders we interviewed embraced not only important new ideas (strategies) but also relentless execution. For example:

Larry Bacow, the President of Tufts, turned an unusual requirement from one of his large donors into a major initiative in the emerging arena of micro finance involving his development office as well as academics and students in a set of activities that embody many of the most important values of the institution;

Judith Rodin decided that university presidents must model the behavior they advocate and then did so by undertaking a massive urban redevelopment effort in the inner city of Philadelphia that required a results oriented perspective not always present in a university setting;

John Hennessy used his experience as a founder of MIPS Technologies to deal with the difficulties caused by the recent financial downturn commenting that the quick and decisive decision making style he learned at a start-up gave him a leg up when faced with an unexpected reduction in operating funds.

All of these interviews, and many more, caused us to conclude that the key to turning research universities into true engines of innovation is not only big ideas but also day to day execution--the unglamorous work that turns what we often call science fair projects into sustainable projects and enterprises. So whether it is a strategy for a private business or a baseball team or a great university, it will not succeed without an equally important element--passionate and relentless execution.