Strategy and Execution Are the Same Thing

MartinHere is an excerpt from an article written by Roger L. Martin for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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In a recent article, Paul Leinwand, Cesare Mainardi, and Art Kleiner presented some survey findings underscoring the well-established fact that few leaders (only 8%, according to their study) are good at both creating good strategies and putting them into practice. But they seemed to almost completely ignore a really interesting finding from their research, which is that leaders who are good at strategy are nearly always also good at execution — to the extent that making a distinction between the two is futile.

Let’s take a look at the findings presented:

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In this table, the vertical “execution” axis represents the respondents’ assessment as to whether good stuff actually happened in the marketplace. The horizontal axis measures whether respondents believe that leadership provided a useful starting point in that effort. The survey presupposes, therefore, that whatever happens in execution can be meaningfully separated from strategy.

The problem with making this distinction is that a mere 1% of leaders were characterized as great strategists who execute poorly. The finding for executors of strategy is identical: only 1% of leaders are great at execution and poor at strategy making. If there were a meaningful distinction to be made between strategy and execution, you would expect bigger numbers in those cells.

Looking more closely only confirms suspicions that strategy and execution are not distinguishable. Of the 11% of leaders who were great “executors” (the top row), 73% (8% out of the 11%) were also great strategists, and just 9% were poor strategists. Of the 13% of leaders described as great strategists (the right hand column), 62% (8% out of 13%) were also “great executors,” while only 8% were “poor executors.”

In fact, the respondents link strategy and execution at all quality levels, which means that the diagonal line dominates the responses: a full 35% of respondents in the poor-poor box, another 23% in the average-average box, and 8% in the great-great box, for a total of 66% of the responses.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Roger L. Martin
is a professor at and the former dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. He is a co-author of Playing to Win (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013).

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