Strategy or execution: which is hardest to get right?

Strategy or execution: which is hardest to get right?

At a recent legal sector conference one of the speakers, the CEO of a global law firm, was comparing the relative difficulty of devising strategy versus the execution of strategy.

He concluded that getting execution right was more difficult than coming up with a strategy in the first place. This was, he seemed to suggest, because turning a strategy into real change was actually an extremely challenging job, especially when one’s firm was very large.

To illustrate the point the speaker produced a slide, a “strategic framework” that showed the logical inputs that fed into the firm’s regular strategic reviews. It contained information such as the current state of the market, a consideration of what work was profitable, what sort of clients the firm needed to focus on, what talent did they need and where they were trying to get to financially.

From out of this framework came: The Strategy. Now what was deemed “the hard part” began: The Execution. The ideas and aims of the strategic plan now had to be absorbed by the only people who were capable of making it become real: the partners and staff. After all, the management team could tell the firm as loudly and as many times as they wished what the strategy was, but if there was no buy-in from key influencers in the firm, or if people simply didn’t understand the strategy or how it might be applied, for example in terms of modifying Business Development, then it didn’t have much impact. The grand strategy would forever remain an unloved deck of PowerPoint slides stored on the managing partner's laptop.

In this respect the best strategy in the world was worthless if the firm could not make it real through efficient execution. In which case it would seem that execution trumps strategy in terms of importance. But, there is more to this story.

What you start with you end with

One could argue that execution is not that onerous if one has the right team in place. Operational managers are trained and experienced in implementing change. That is a key part of their job. If, for example, a core part of the new strategy is to target clients in a new sector then the firm's various operational elements will swing into action. Partners will go out and meet clients in that sector. The BD team will conduct research on said clients to support such efforts. The marketing team will devise messages and communications that will reach out and engage this client base. And so on, all the way through the various operational organs of the business. Management will then check progress, a period of learning and recalibration will take place and then the strategy will continue to be executed.

This all seems quite logical. After all, it's a process that if managed well is not insurmountable by any means. In which case, is execution really so challenging?

If one has good managers who can lead people and talented support staff who understand what is required, as well as partners who are willing to take on board new strategic targets, then what is the problem? One could say you are not inventing a new car from scratch, rather, at this point in the process you are trying to drive it down a road where the markings and sign posts have been made very clear.

Conversely, what could lead all these talented and hardworking people down a dead end, or exhaust them while trying to implement something that has no client traction, is a weak or imprecise strategy.

If you start off with a generic, under-researched or imprecise strategic plan, no matter how talented and brilliant the firm is at execution then the firm will not do as well as it could. To quote the old adage about systems management: "Garbage in, garbage out."

In which case, is it not more correct to say that strategy is more important to get right, and perhaps harder to get right, than execution?

You need to get both right

The truth is a firm needs to get both right. It is not possible to place strategy or execution above or below the other in a real world setting. They are sequential and in that case both must be got right and both are of critical importance. Neither is ever likely to be easy. Loose strategy that does not really pin down what needs to be achieved is just as damaging to a firm’s future prospects as practice leaders and support staff who cannot, or do not feel motivated to, execute the strategy.

It is therefore somewhat of a false dichotomy to say strategy is more or less important than execution. Though, strategy is the matter managers must attend to first, because if one starts with a weak strategy or a “fluffy” plan to begin with there will be little that is significant to execute.

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About the author:

Richard helps law firms with important strategic decisions. He advises on areas such as merger, practice development and geographical expansion. He also provides assistance to law firms in relation to organisational and operational issues.

Richard has spent over 16 years working in the legal sector focused on the UK and global legal markets. He previously worked at Jomati as a strategy consultant and authored the Jomati Report series between 2009 and 2014.

Prior to that, Richard worked at US-based, Hildebrandt International, and also held senior, legal sector editorial roles in London and Paris.