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Vision is Strategy. Execution is Tactics.

Posted by Bob Warfield on June 27, 2009

Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.  — Sun Tzu from “The Ancient Art of War”

Sarah Lacy is rehashing that old chestnut about whether vision or execution is more important, right down to the usual recasting of what some feel is visionary (Apple’s latest round of products) to merely fantastic execution.  She’ll argue that if anyone else had even the glimmer of the idea before the visionary, that it is execution and not vision.  There is the inevitable look at history with perfect 20/20 hindsight used to so often when writing about this story–Peoplesoft and I2 are not the winners, SAP is (BTW, Sarah, did you realize Oracle bought Peoplesoft, not SAP, and that Oracle is the bigger player?).  Never mind that Peoplesoft was the winner for many years and the factors that changed that originated outside Peoplesoft’s market and therefore had little or nothing to do with vision or execution on their part.

We’ve seen this movie before. 

What always bugs me about this whole argument is that it again falls into the very Western mindset that insists there must be black or white and no gray.  Only one can win, and we will simply choose to see all gray as whichever color we want to be the winner.  In the East, they are wiser about shades of gray.  They don’t insist on categorizing and pigeonholing where it doesn’t make sense.

So it is with Vision and Execution.

Vision is Strategy, and my favorite definition of Strategy is that it is about making winning easier.  Clearly then, all Vision with no ability to execute will not succeed.  A lack of Vision is one reason why we often see Fast Followers succeed.  We mistake the dumb luck of being there first with true Vision.  Hence folks like Lacy want to argue that it is having the idea first that represents the Visionary.  But I don’t see it that way.  Real Visionaries are not One Trick ponies.  Look how late in his career Steve Jobs is still delivering Visionary results.  Fast Follower opportunity can occur because the Visionary isn’t executing well.  But one also sees markets taken over because an Executor has not Vision and their original motivating Vision grows stale until it is no longer competitive.

Execution is Tactics.  Vision told us which hill to take, now we have to get on with the job of fighting the battle.  Give a good Executor a Vision from somewhere, even borrowed, and they will get it done.  But once they’ve taken the hill, they will have no idea what hill to take next.  Situate their hill in the middle of a whole mountain range of opportunity, and it’s the worst thing they can encounter.  They run from hill to hill with no clear plan.  Often they take the hill, but there is always another one.  That sounds like Microsoft or Yahoo to me.  Microsoft actually had some Vision once upon a time, but it seems long gone as they keep trying to steal other company’s hills. 

And so, it isn’t hard to see, that we need both if we expect to be a sustained force.  It also isn’t hard to look back with that 20/20 hindsight and see that a lot of companies have lost one or the other over time, resulting in their steady decline.

4 Responses to “Vision is Strategy. Execution is Tactics.”

  1. […] Bob Warfield […]

  2. speculand said

    I liked your definition of strategy, had not heard that one.

    In addition to your points I would add that what is missing the most today in the field of strategy implementation is a framework to guide leaders to take the right actions.

    Every organization is unique and every implementation is different. We discovered in our research, eight areas where all the organizations who successfully implemented their strategy focused . In Bridges we capture these eight areas of excellence in execution under our proprietary tool, the Implementation Compass.

    Excellence in execution is not about doing one or two things well, such as changing measures or communicating the strategy. It is about doing eight things well, simultaneously. We have extracted from our research in the field that the one in ten who are successfully implemented their strategy worked in all eight directions of the Compass. During the implementation journey different weightage is applied at different times but all eight directions are constantly acted on and reviewed.

    The eight areas of excellence are People, Biz Case, Communicate, Measure, Culture, Process, Recognition and Review.

    Any significant shift in strategy requires significant changes in day-to-day activities throughout the organization.

    Leaders have a fundamental responsibility to create the right conditions for implementation in the organization. This can be an overwhelming responsibility when they are not provided any guidance on how to do it.

    Leaders must shift from thinking, planning and developing to action, managing resources and strong leadership. Many leaders fail in this transition. For example, translating the strategy into daily actions that staff members must take is tougher than it sounds. On many occasions when working with a leadership team, I discover that the leaders can’t explain what they want their people to do differently as a result of hearing about the new strategy. The leadership team understands the strategy, but it has not considered the strategy’s implications for the individual areas of the business and its people’s day-to-day activities.

    Leaders generally know that implementation requires extra effort. In reality, however, very few are able to free up valuable time and resources to do justice to the implementation journey. They become so caught up in managing the day-to-day business that they lose sight of their goal to implement the new strategy and as such end up taking the wrong actions.


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