"Strategy vs Execution" is not a helpful distinction

The Overlap #5

Welcome to The Overlap, a biweekly newsletter on the intersection between product & organization design. You’ll notice that the look and feel are different. I’ve moved this newsletter from Mailchimp to Substack. If you’re interested in why, I tweeted about it here.

Too many consultants in the kitchen

I once worked with a hardware startup to help them align on the features that would go in their minimum viable product. My company was tasked to build the digital experience of this startup’s product, and I would align our team and the startup team on the MVP that our company would build.

Like most startups, this one was funded by venture capital. This was their very first product. Part of my job as a strategist is to get to know their team and the different hats they wore so that I have a good sense of how the organization worked.

I quickly noticed that this startup hired tons of consultants. Everyone I met called themselves an advisor, responsible for advising on the startup’s strategy. The docs they sent me were the classic consultant deliverable: long presentations with lofty ambitions, goals, and financial projections, yet no articulation of the biggest challenges they’d face and how they would overcome these challenges. There were more consultants doing pseudo-strategy than folks working on the product: engineers, product managers, operations, and marketing.

Early-stage startups need builders, not consultants. So why were there so many consultants?

The org designer in me wanted to dive deeper into this specific problem, but that wasn’t what I was contracted to do. It felt intrusive of me to investigate, so I kept my head down and did my job.

However, every time I was at the client’s office, I couldn’t help but question it. There had to be a phenomenon at play here.

I eventually came across this tweetstorm that explained the phenomenon to me:

I’d encourage you to read the whole tweetstorm, but the takeaway is that the consulting/advisory that VC firms offer (to differentiate themselves) is quite useless.

Early-stage startups might benefit from consulting, but they don’t need a Consultant Task Force. They need engineers, designers, operators—people who do the hard work of getting their product out to market.

I’m sure you’ve seen some version of “too many thinkers and not enough doers” before. Perhaps you were a part of a team with seven “stakeholders” and one designer who was responsible for driving the project. Or you’ve met social media strategists who don’t create Instagram or Twitter posts because they’d prefer to “hand off their strategy” to someone more junior.

This separation of strategy and execution is more harmful than helpful. It’s a distinction that’s woefully outdated.

Separating thinking from doing comes from the industrial age

Let’s go back to a time that pre-dates the internet: 1910, during the Second Industrial Revolution. This was a time when manufacturing began to scale standard practices, leading to mass production and a new wave of globalization.

Frederick Taylor, a mechanical engineer who sought to improve industrial efficiency, coined a theory called scientific management. Scientific management was all about optimizing economic efficiency and labor productivity. It was super influential at the time. And some of its themes still live on today (for better and for worse).

I want to home in on one specific principle published in The Principles of Scientific Management:

Allocate the work between managers and workers so that the managers spend their time planning and training, allowing the workers to perform their tasks efficiently.

Taylor advocated for two kinds of employees: managers and workers. And he believed it was most efficient for managers to plan and workers to do.

This idea was in a book published in 1911. Yet we still carry these assumptions at work today: almost every company separates strategy and execution and has managers and doers.

Our working world is overdue for an update

I like how the Helsinki Design Lab challenges this separation between thinker and doer. From page 40 of Recipes for Systemic Change:

Without the broader stewardship arc, the design process is easily all about thinking and not doing — this is precisely what we see to be the difficulty with the ‘design thinking’ debate and its over-emphasis on helping people think differently. In the context of strategic design, ideas are important, but only when they lead to impact. Part of this is appreciating the quality with which an idea is executed and recognizing that quality of execution and quality of strategy are equally important.

Ideas are important only when they lead to impact. And execution and strategy are equally important.

It is common these days for one group to be involved in analysis of a problem and designing the solution (consultants) while a different group executes these ideas (contractors). But this disconnects an essential feedback loop.

In contrast, we are primarily concerned with the overlap or tether between the analysis of problems and the development of solutions. Bridging the gap between analysis and execution can be an unusual role within many organizations, though not to the practice of design. By being involved in stewardship across both is it is possible to close the feedback loop between problem and solution, thereby giving the strategy a self-learning mechanism that creates a degree of intelligent flexibility.

Instead of thinking of strategy and execution as separate, think of it as a feedback loop that tells us whether our strategy works or not.

Everyone is a thinker and doer

Let’s go back to our earlier example of too many consultants in the kitchen. At the end of our engagement, I noticed that the consultants ended up doing execution work. They were event marketing, contributing to fundraising efforts, and working with manufacturers to stay on schedule. I can’t say for sure why the consultants ended up doing execution work, but my guess is that they found themselves twiddling their thumbs while the company needed extra hands with actual work.

By writing this essay, I don’t mean to discredit the value of strategy or consulting work. I’ve worked as a consultant for three years. I believe a good strategy is necessary for a business to succeed. I just want to encourage us to challenge this notion that strategy and execution are entirely separate things.

Everyone is a thinker and doer.

Of course, you’ll likely strategize more if you’re a manager. And you’ll likely execute more if you’re an individual contributor. But if you’re an individual contributor, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be curious about how your work advances your company’s strategy. And if you’re a manager, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be willing to do actual work.

Get rid of the idea that strategy and execution are separate things. Instead, put your beliefs to the test by acting upon them and seeing what you learn.

What I’m Reading & Listening To

1. The Strategic Independent - Tom Critchlow

Lots of really good ideas from Tom on why you should position yourself to do more strategy work. It’s meant for the indie consultant, but I think its lessons apply to individual contributors looking to do more strategic work at their company.

2. Good Strategy Bad Strategy - Richard Rumelt

I can’t believe I haven’t read this book. Richard is refreshingly clear on what makes bad strategy bad and good strategy good. It’s well-written, unapologetic, and useful—my favorite kind of book. I also found this summary helpful.

3. Collaborative Design Research - Matt Strom

Matt continues to be one of my favorite writers to follow. This post is about how research is the perfect opportunity to set a collaborative tone because everyone starts from the same playing field of not knowing anything. Great insight.

4. Come for the network, pay for the tool - Toby Shorin

Thoughtful essay on the emergence of a new product category: paid communities (Substack being one of them!). This quote was on the money:

“We are transitioning from an era of centralized management of human development and financial capital into an era where both identity formation and resource allocation happens in decentralized, loosely-coordinated, and emergent ways.”

I’ve long believed that the most resilient organizations are decentralized, loosely coupled, and emergent. It’s intriguing to think that identify formation and resource allocation also happen in decentralized, emergent ways—perhaps as a result of the internet.

5. Brave New Work Podcast

I’m enjoying the Brave New Work podcast. It’s for leaders and change agents seeking to reinvent their organizations. The cohosts Aaron and Rodney (who are also former mentors of mine!) are hilarious and tell it like it is. You should definitely subscribe using your podcast player of choice.