Context, basketball and the Golden Gate Bridge

Strategy execution is arguably today's premium business mantra, one that we are all focusing on. The multimillion-dollar question is invariably, 'Why are some organizations more successful than others?'

The Golden Gate Bridge at sunrise
Credit: Thinkstock / rschlie

When my colleague Joe Czarnecki and I were given the opportunity to share our thoughts on how to improve your and your organization's ability to make strategy work, I started reflecting on all the times in my personal and professional life where I set out to execute against an established strategy.  There have been many — some of which I look back fondly upon, and others I would like to forget like a bad dream. With most projects and initiatives, I have been involved with either leading, advising or observing the execution of strategies — sometimes all three.

Sports are often used as an example for business, and as I watched my beloved Golden State Warriors execute their game plan (i.e. strategy) brilliantly all season long, I reflected on another special basketball season. There I was, along with the other coach (i.e. executive management team member), planning the perfect strategy for my son's basketball squad. It was based on dissecting and emulating the Larry Bird-era Celtics and their classic battles with the Magic Johnson-led Lakers. Our success was impeded by the ability of our fourth-grade children to comprehend what our brilliant strategic minds were trying to impart, and to successfully translate this strategy into results, into wins.

Arguably, "strategy execution" is today's premium business mantra, one that we are all focusing on, regardless of whether we are a commercial, government or nonprofit organization; where we are located geographically; the profile and size of our customer/user base; or the diversity and size of our organization.

The multimillion-dollar question is invariably, "Why are some organizations more successful than others?" The answer is not a simple one. If it was, I would be writing this from my private island. Instead, I am sitting on an airplane, having just experienced arguably this summer's best example of how NOT to make strategy work — the TSA's airline passenger screening process.

For those of you outside the United States, the TSA is the Transportation Security Administration, the government agency charged with ensuring the security of the country's freight and passenger transportation systems. At a time when airline passenger traffice has increased by 15% and the country is experiencing heightened security concerns, the TSA reduced the number of screeners it employs by about 10%, resulting in long lines, frustrated customers and shouts of "Are you kidding me? What are they thinking?" I suspect the kids on my son's basketball team felt the same way about me and my fellow coach, and I know middle managers at many organizations across the globe express those same sentiments every day.

So what makes some initiatives and projects successful and others not? How are some managers and leaders able to consistently deliver results?

As I wait for the plane to take off, my reflections take me back to my own childhood growing up in San Francisco. We used to bike across the Golden Gate Bridge, an engineering and international landmark. And as I think of the impressive bridge, I begin to think of formulated strategy being on one side of the bridge while execution success lies on the other side.

The strategy is clear, head north across the bridge and you’ll arrive at successful execution on the other side. Executing this plan seems rather straightforward, too. Start on the south side in the city. Put on your shorts, helmet and sunglasses; pack some water, make sure you have your air pump and a spare tire tube; then hop on your bike and start your ride. With the sun at your back, you’ll hit a few hills at first and then there it stands in front of you. The sight is always breathtaking, but for those unfamiliar, and even for those who are, the sight is often not the bridge at all — it’s the fog! But even if you’re lucky and it’s clear when you arrive, the fog can descend onto the deck of the bridge in a matter of minutes. Suddenly, your journey becomes unclear and at times you question your judgment: Continue or go back? Pause to get a better read on things? Will the fog lift? Will it suddenly come back? How long will the current conditions continue? Whether experiencing this for the first time or the hundredth, you may become completely disoriented and frankly immobilized into nonaction.

Isn't this the way strategy and execution play out every day in our real world, in our work, in our organizations? We start across the proverbial bridge with well-defined plans, armed with managers skilled at executing the plan. And then the fog sets in. How do your managers react to the ambiguity, uncertainty and unpredictability in today's business climate? Have we adequately prepared them? Have we taken the time to discuss the context in which we are operating? Do they know not only how we expect to execute the plan but also how we need to react as managers and leaders? Often, the answer is no, and that's the new norm.

To me, the Golden Gate Bridge is golden for many reasons other than color (it is, in fact, not golden at all but orange). Among the reasons is the power of this bridge metaphor to help people think about strategy execution within their context, and to begin to acknowledge that fog exists, and how you and your team need to react and plan for it.

A colleague of mine, Stanford University professor Raymond Levitt, likes to say that successful strategy execution is not only the ability to do the right things, but also the ability to do the things right, while all the time recognizing the need to be more agile and maintain a high tolerance for ambiguity. The ambiguity, or fog, is the most predictable part of strategy execution. Growing up in San Francisco (and London and other foggy climes), you learn to navigate in the fog. By preparing our managers and leaders to take a more holistic view, we help them understand the context in which they are operating and accept that it can change at any given moment. To understand that fog is constantly coming and going is arguably one of the most important steps we can take to lay the groundwork for making strategy work.

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