It is almost like Cartesian mind/body dualism: we tend to consider strategy and execution to be two different things. The top management of an organization (the mind, or brain) formulates a strategy, which is then supposed to be executed by the organization (the body). The eventual organizational performances will rely on the quality of both. This means that you can have a great strategy, but with a poor execution, your organization won’t perform that well. Strategy and execution are distinct from each other.
Whereas top management is supposed to ‘think’ and formulate strategies, it is up to the ‘low level workers’ or ‘front-line employees’ to just do it. It is not up to them to question the strategy, or provide input to the top management. They are usually provided with a manual, or policy guidelines and have to follow these. A clear cut in the division of tasks.
In theory that is though, but what happens if we look at more practical situations? Do the front-line employees simply follow their manuals, and do they only do what is stated and formulated by the top management? And on a more practical note: are top management teams able to formulate strategies in such detail that they provide answers to every situation a front-line employee might face? No. Front-line employees are constantly faced with new situations and have to make choices on how to tackle them. Front-line employees should be considered part of the policy-making community. In the end, they shape the policies and strategies by executing them in a certain way. It is plainly simple: strategy implementation in the end comes down to the people who actually implement it.
So, the clear cut in the division of tasks, between the top management and the front-line employees, between mind and body, between strategy and execution, isn’t that clear. It is a false metaphor, oversimplifying reality, with serious negative consequences. Some front-line employees may internalize the idea of a distinction between strategy and execution, resulting in a mere focus on faithful execution, rather than on doing what is best for the customer. They become mechanically obedient and eventually disillusioned and disconnected. At the same time, the top management team may fail to recognize the difficulty of implementing their rather abstract strategies down the line. When the implementation succeeds, they take the credits for the great strategy they developed, but when it fails, they blame it on a flawed execution. This leaves the front-line employees entirely out of the game: they will never be the cause of success, only of failure. Again, they become disconnected and there is no motivation for them to share their strategic insights. An external consultancy firm will have to be brought in to gather this information and deliver it to the top management, resulting in even more disconnectedness.
Martin initiates the idea of perceiving strategy and execution as a white water river with choices cascading from the top to the bottom. They are made at various points in the river, and affect other choices that will be made further downstream. The first choices will encompass the larger, long-term ones, and the ones downstream will be more detailed and pragmatic. This model motivates employees on all levels in the organization to take responsibility for their actions and recognize the choices to be made as a result of their actions. All the actions taken, will then be aligned.
This choice-cascade model centers around the idea of the encouragement of feedback. Because of this, knowledge of front-line employees will be able to end up upstream, enabling the top management to improve their future decision-making. This way, the quality of the process will improve, and the engagement of front-line employees is increased. They are empowered to become and remain part of the process. This is however easier said than done, as often the ‘empowerment’ to share information, remains nothing more than an attempt of the top management to convince the front-line employees to share information, while maintaining the division between strategy and execution. A real step forward when it comes down to empowerment should be taken. True and open dialogues between top managers and front-line employees should be held for their actions to become aligned.
This post is written by Hester Mourik and is based on the article The Execution Trap by Prof. Roger Martin, published in 2010 in Harvard Business Review. At the time of publication, Martin was the Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, Canada.