We all know the question, "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" 

I'd like to propose an alternative: "If a strategy is developed and no one implements it, does the strategy even matter?" 

One Coin, Two Sides: The Relationship Between Strategy and Execution

Strategy and execution are two sides of the same coin. 

Strategy is nothing without implementation. By the same token, implementation without strategy is just activity without a plan. 

I spend a lot of my workday reflecting on the purpose and effectiveness of strategy as a path to innovation and growth, and one thing always holds true: implementation is an imperative to successful outcomes. While this may sound obvious, trust me when I say, it's not. 

This recent article in Quartz got me thinking about whether companies need strategy. The author Kevin J. Delaney states that strategy is less important than execution or implementation. 

An oft-quoted statement by Herb Kelleher, cofounder of Southwest Airlines, supports this argument:

“Strategy is overrated, simply doing stuff is underrated. We have a strategic plan. It’s called doing things.” 

Kelleher put it slightly differently in a 2004 interview, “What we do by way of strategic planning is we define ourselves and then we redefine ourselves.”

Can You Get By With No Strategy?

Kelleher makes some excellent points about the importance of execution and follow-through. However is that really all there is to it? 

Make no mistake: no matter who is responsible for developing the strategy, it must be rooted in practical and actionable operational and execution considerations. The best strategists are, or were at some point, practitioners. They know strategically what needs to happen,then  know operationally what the organization will need to get it done, and execute it, with high chances for success.

Southwest underwent a major rebranding last year — and I can't help but wonder did it hack or experiment its way into its new brand. My sense is that a highly strategic plan supported the campaign.

How Do You Know When You Need a Strategy?

Activity can sometimes masquerade as strategy, but do not mistake the one for the other. 

Lots of activity can distract you, make people feel — often falsely — that there actions are having an impact, and give the appearance of progress. 

The following signs will tell you if your efforts or teams lack strategic direction: 

  • Employees abandon and forget programs or campaigns almost as quickly as they’re executed, moving on to “the next thing”
  • There's a lack of visibility and connectivity between the team’s activities and leadership’s goals
  • Tracking, measurement and evaluation are not part of the program
  • The team is not being given the resources they feel they need to accomplish their goals — because they cannot demonstrate to leadership the impact or value of what they’re attempting to implement
  • Rampant indecision rules, where nobody can agree on or make a commitment to the next best step

From Experimentation to Strategic Innovation in the Enterprise

This isn't to suggest businesses shouldn't experiment. At this stage in the rapidly evolving social and marketing technologies landscapes, there is no shortage of new things to try. 

By all means, experiment. But then, make a plan.

Research from McKinsey & Company shows that at the enterprise level, the adoption of social technologies over the last decade has been done in an increasingly mindful and strategic fashion. 

A review of survey data from 2005–2015 showed, “three distinct, progressively more sophisticated phases of usage. Companies in our sample began with trial-and-error applications — for example, using social platforms such as YouTube to expand their marketing mix to attract younger consumers. They then switched their focus to fostering collaboration. Most recently, some have deployed social technologies to catalyze the cocreation of strategy.”

As someone who worked for a major US retail operation several years ago where we were deep in the throes of social technology experimentation (the “tryout” stage), I've witnessed first-hand the challenges and eventual progression to the more sophisticated and strategic approach that the research highlights. 

Leveling the Strategic Playing Field

The research also forecasts an increase in collaboration and co-creation as these kind of initiatives continue to evolve: 

"Companies in our study that have tried to set strategic priorities from the bottom up report a flattening of management hierarchies and in some cases deeper employee involvement through allocation of resources using social-voting mechanisms. Forty-seven percent of executives said that such democratization of strategy would intensify over the next three to five years."

Just as the rise of the internet and digital marketing shifted control from advertisers and publishes to the consumer, so too the democratization of strategy is beginning to shift the dynamic from a privileged few in the organizational elite to the wider organization and — even further out — to individuals and partners outside of the organization. Crowdsourcing and partnering are beginning to be the new normal even at the enterprise level. 

It’s encouraging to see the progression from experimentation to strategic application, as well as how this progression creates expansion in the organization to include more and more voices and opinions in the strategy. 

What are strategies, but vessels that contain the goals, objectives, mission, vision, aspirations and hopes and wishes for your business? This vessel helps add substance and a framework to what an organization imagines its business can, and will be, at some point in the future. At its most basic level, a strategy is really a “container” for your business aspirations. Build a strong container and consider it a living thing.

The Art of Strategy

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory.

Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat."

— Sun Tzu, The Art of War

If you were only to do one thing to ensure development of a valuable strategy as well as successful implementation, it's this:

Tie individual and department KPIs to shared ownership of strategy and execution. This means everyone is evaluated on both factors, and should (in theory) encourage collaboration amongst colleagues and functional areas for the benefit of the organization — as well as individuals.

Don’t let your strategy be like that proverbial tree that fell in the forest. Strategies should be a dynamic initiative, not a static document that sits on a shelf gathering dust. Create it, implement it, continue to refine it, track it, measure it and watch it come to life.