When business scholars talk about strategy, they like to talk about the uniqueness of specific choices – like Michael Dell selling computers out of his dorm room, Starbucks’ ability to quickly establish customer loyalty in new markets, Wal-Mart’s effort to locate a store within an hour of everyone in the continental U.S. – and how those choices cannot be easily replicated.
But behind every one of those decisions is the ability to execute it, which is far more important and complex than the decision itself. In fact, a poor decision well executed typically fetches better results than the perfect decision poorly executed.
Dell Computers is able to build and ship because their supplier’s motherboards are stored (unpaid) in shipping containers next to the plant. One of the things that helps Starbucks establish loyalty is the production process that gets me from the back of the line to cup-in-hand in less than two minutes. Wal-Mart’s expansion efforts are possible because of its distribution system, including the huge investment it has made on inventory control. In competitive markets, execution – not choice – will determine the real winners.
Let me draw an analogy to a musical performance where the conductor selects a piece of music, and then orchestrates its manifestation.
A few years ago in New York, I sat in on a recording by Wynton Marsalis and his band. As the band settled in, Marsalis raised his baton and you could have heard a pin drop. Then he lowered the baton and the music commenced. It was quite literally the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and I was transfixed. It was silky, smooth and perfect. Or so I thought. In the midst of me relishing the performance, Marsalis suddenly dropped his baton by his side in disappointment and sighed heavily. The musicians came to a staggered halt.
“No, no, no!” declared Marsalis, “That’s all wrong.” Then, in the manner of a concerned schoolteacher, he spoke to his band about what was wrong and gave very specific instructions on how to correct it. Not being a musician myself, I didn’t understand the exchange from leader to producers and was skeptical that it could make a difference. After all, the portion of the piece I had just heard was beautiful. But when they started again, I was astonished to discern that the music had become WAY better than the first take. I couldn’t begin to say why it was better or what was different, but it was a palpable improvement from what had preceded.
Playing music is similar to executing strategy in terms of the inputs required and the quality of results. If Marsalis had not stopped his musicians, he arguably would have ended up with a decent recording; certainly one that I would have remembered. But that’s apparently a choice he would have never made. For Marsalis, as with great strategists, execution is a habit. Other bands can play the Marsalis piece, but few will ever play it as well.
The point here is that there are two components to strategy. There is the choice itself, which will determine whether the offering is relevant and compelling. And then there is the delivery, which determines whether a consumer will find the offering to be resonant and differentiating. Another way of looking at it is this: the strategic choice is a promise, and execution is the fulfillment of the promise. Companies should understand the strength of their offerings on both sides of the coin in order to make the best use of its efforts and resources.