Few phrases bother me more than this one:
“I know it didn’t work, but it was a great strategy. We just didn’t have the resources to execute it.”
Huh. Wait minute. If you didn’t have the resources to execute it, then it wasn’t a great strategy. Maybe it was a great strategy for some other company that could have applied the appropriate resources. But it wasn’t a great strategy for you. Ergo, it wasn’t a great strategy. QED.
I learned my favorite definition of strategy at a Stanford executive program I attended a few years back. Per Professor Robert Burgelman, author of Strategy is Destiny, strategy is simply “the plan to win.” Which begets an important conversation about the definition of winning. In my experience, defining winning is more important than making the plan, because if everyone is focused on taking different hills, any resultant strategy will be a mishmash of plans to support different objectives.
But, regardless of your company’s definition of winning, I can say that any strategy you can’t execute definitionally won’t succeed and is ergo a bad strategy.
It sounds obvious, but nevertheless a lot of companies fall into this trap. Why?
- A lack of focus.
- A failure to “compile” strategy before executing it.
Focus: Think Small to Grow Big
Big companies that compete in lots of broad markets almost invariably didn’t start out that way.
BusinessObjects started out focused on the Oracle financials installed base. Facebook started out on Harvard students, then Ivy league students. Amazon, it’s almost hard to remember at this point, started out in books. Salesforce started out in SMB salesforce automation. ServiceNow on IT ticket management. This list goes on and on.
Despite the evidence and despite the fame Geoffrey Moore earned with Crossing the Chasm, focus just doesn’t come naturally to people. The “if I could get 1% share of a $10B market, I’d be a $100M company” thought pattern is just far too common. (And investors often accidentally reinforce this.)
The fact is you will be more dominant, harder to dislodge, and probably more profitable if, as a $100M company, you control 30% of a $300M target as opposed to 1% of a $10B target.
So the first reason startups make strategies they can’t execute is because they forget to focus. They aim too broadly. They sign up for too much. The forget that strategy should be sequence of actions over time. Let’s start with Harvard. Then go Ivy League. Then go Universities in general. Then go everyone.
Former big company executives often compound the problem. They’re not used to working with scarce resources and are more accustomed to making “laundry list” strategies that check all the boxes than making focused strategies that achieve victory step by step.
A Failure to Compile Strategy Before Execution
The second reason companies make strategies they can’t execute is that they forget a critical step in the planning process that I call the strategy compiler. Here’s what I think a good strategic planning process looks like.
- Strategy offsite. The executive team spends a week offsite focused on situation assessment and strategy. The output of this meeting should be (1) a list of strategic goals for the company for the following year and (2) a high-level financial model that concretizes what the team is trying to accomplish over the next three years. (With an eye, at a startup, towards cash.)
- First round budgeting. Finance issues top-down financial targets. Executives who own the various objectives make strategic plans for how to attain them. The output of this phase is (1) first-draft consolidated financials, (2) a set of written strategies along with proposed organizational structures and budgets for attaining each of the company’s ten strategic objectives.
- Strategy compilation, resources. The team meets for a day to review the consolidated plans and financials. Invariably there are too many objectives, too much operating expense, and too many new hires. The right answer here is to start cutting strategic goals. The wrong answer is to keep the original set of goals and slash the budget 20% across the board. It’s better to do 100% of 8 strategic initiatives than do 80% of 10.
- Strategy compilation, skills. The more subtle assessment that must happen is a sanity check on skills and talent. Do your organization have the competencies and do your people have the skills to execute the strategic plans? If a new engineering project requires the skills of 5 founder-level, Stanford computer science PHDs who each would want 5% of a company, you are simply not going to be able to hire that kind of talent as regular employees. (This is one reason companies do “acquihires”). The output of this phase is a presumably-reduced set of strategic goals.
- Second round budgeting. Executives to build new or revised plans to support the now-reduced set of strategic goals.
- Strategy compilation. You run the strategy compiler again on the revised plan — and iterate until the strategic goals match the resources and the skills of the proposed organization.
- Board socialization. As you start converging via the strategy compiler you need to start working with the board to socialize and eventually sell the proposed operating plan. (This process could easily be the subject of another post.)
If you view strategy as the plan to win, then successful strategies include only those strategies that your organization can realistically execute from both a resources and skills perspective. Instead of doing a single-pass process that moves from strategic objectives to budgets, use an iterative approach with a strategy compiler to ensure your strategic code compiles before you try to execute it.
If you do this, you’ll increase your odds of success and decrease the odds ending up in the crowded section of the corporate graveyard where the epitaphs all read:
Here Lies a Company that Had a “Great” Strategy It Had No Chance of Executing