Strategy That Works: A book review by Bob Morris

Strategy That WorksStrategy That Works: How Winning Companies Close the Strategy-to-Execution Gap
Paul Leinwand and Cesare Mainardi with Art Kleiner
Harvard Business Review Press (2016)

How and why getting strategy and execution in cohesive alignment “is a worthwhile legacy for any leader in any enterprise”

Those who have read Cut Costs + Grow Stronger (2009) and/or The Essential Advantage (2011) already know that Paul Leinwand and Cesare Mainardi are among the most insightful business thinkers now publishing books and articles that provide information, insights, and counsel of incalculable value to senior-level executives as well as to those who aspire to reach that level. That said, I think Strategy That Works (written with Art Kleiner) is their most important work thus far. Why? Because I think it will have a wider and deeper impact on any organization, whatever its size and nature may be.

Just as Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton focus on the “knowing-doing gap,” Leinwand and Mainardi focus on another, equally important gap. As they explain, “There is a significant and unnecessary gap between strategy and execution: a lack of connection between where the enterprise aims to go and what it can accomplish. We have met many leaders who understand this problem, but very few who know how to overcome it…Some business leaders try to close the gap on the strategy side, looking for a better market position. Others double down on execution, improving their methods and practices. Despite their efforts, both groups struggle to achieve consistent success.” Alas, few companies have solved this problem. I agree with Leinwand and Mainardi that the problem cannot be solved with conventional wisdom and I also agree with Albert Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Five acts of unconventional leadership are needed:

1. Instead of focusing on growth, commit to an identity: Differentiate and grow by being clear-minded about what you can do best

2. Instead of pursuing functional excellence, translate the strategic into everyday life: Build and connect the cross-functional capabilities that deliver your strategic intent

3. Instead of reorganizing to drive change, put your culture to work: Celebrate and leverage your cultural strengths

4. Instead of going lean, cut costs to grow stronger: Prune what doesn’t matter to invest more in what does

5. Instead of becoming agile and resilient, shape your future: Reimagine your capabilities, create demand, and realign your industry on your own terms

“The five acts of unconventional leadership take different forms in different companies, but there is a family resemblance across all of them. They are all critical to engendering management habits that keep strategy and execution closely integrated, so there is no gap between them. Together, they comprise a playbook for creating sustainable value.” All five are discussed in some detail (Pages 12-19).

Leinwand and Mainardi correctly stress the critical importance of organizational and operational coherence in terms of alignment among three strategic elements: “A value proposition that distinguishes a company from other companies (we sometimes call this a ‘way to play’ in the market); also, a system of distinctive capabilities that reinforce each other and enable the company to deliver on this value proposition; and, a chosen portfolio of products and services that all make use of those capabilities.”

Devoting a separate chapter to each, they explain HOW TO

o Avoid or overcome the “strategy-to-execution gap”
o Commit to an identity
o Translate the strategic to the everyday
o Put a culture to work
o Cut costs to grow stronger
o Shape the future
o Remain bold and fearless

These are among the several dozen passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Leiwand and Mainardi’s coverage:

o The Unanswered Question (Pages 6-10)
o Five Acts of Unconventional Leadership (10-19)
o How the Five Acts Fit Together (19-22)
o Defining Who You Are (42-51)
o The Triggers of Identity (60-65)
o Blueprinting the Capabilities System (77-85)
o Building Distinctive Capabilities (86-107)
o Scaling Up Your Capabilities System (107-117)
o Fostering a Distinctive Culture (121-125)
o Mutual Accountability (130-133)
o Deploying Your Critical Few (138-144)
o Rethinking Next Year’s Budget (169-172)
o Recharge Your Capabilities System (175-178)
o Create Demand (179-184)

Readers will appreciate the provision of several mini-case studies (e.g. Amazon, CEMEX, Danaher Corporation, Frito-Lay, Haier, IKEA, Lego, Qualcomm), nine “Tools” (e.g. “Parking-Lot Exercise,” “Super Competitor Workshop,” and “Questions and Behaviors for Leaders”) that are inserted throughout the narrative as well as five appendices: A History of Strategy, The Capable Company Research Project, Puretone Ways to Play, Examples of Table-Stakes Capabilities, and a Selected Bibliography. These supplementary resources all by themselves are worth far more than the cost of this book.

Joined by Art Kleiner, Paul Leinwand and Cesare Mainardi ask their reader to think of this book as a call to action — “an invitation to become a better leader through the alignment of strategy and execution. Coherence makes every aspect of leadership easier in the long run. It continually focuses your attention on the most important things your company does. It enables you to define a world that your company can help to create. It is a worthwhile legacy for any leader in any enterprise.” As Michelangelo is reputed to have observed centuries ago, “The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short, but in setting our aim too low and achieving our mark.”

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