Strategy without action is pointless.
You can plan forever, but if you never put your ideas to the test, all the time and effort you spend on planning is for nothing. So, when you compare strategy vs execution, there is only one winner.
Without execution, strategic planning is just a hypothesis. Business success comes from engagement in meaningful work—and we can only deliver the best impact when we learn and adapt over time.
The best way to do that is to dive in headfirst and be willing to make mistakes.
So, why do most companies struggle to take that next step? Why is execution such a challenge?
This article explores the strategy planning trap that holds many companies from fulfilling their goals. By the end, you’ll know what it takes to move beyond talking and dreaming, so you can create a strategy that is built for action.
Here’s what you’ll discover:
- What Is the Strategy Planning Trap?
- What is Strategy Execution?
- 4 key considerations to make your strategy action-ready
- The old vs. the new way of strategy execution
What Is the strategy planning trap?
The strategy planning trap is a common pitfall where companies fail to take action because key stakeholders can't agree on goals, course of action, or communicate activities to the people responsible for on-the-ground execution.
Imagine you get a job at The Old-Fashioned Standard Corporation. During a strategic planning session, several issues pop up. When the CEO started to draw the strategy map on his whiteboard, people smiled and nodded.
But 45 minutes later, it looks like hieroglyphs. Two people have slipped out to the bathroom with puzzled looks, and a few others look ready to slip into a fear-induced coma.
The business leaders toss a lot of opinions across the boardroom table, but few ideas stick because none are backed up by hard data.
Also, there are no employees outside of the C-suite, so nobody knows how any of the ideas will actually take shape. It is complete guesswork pulled from a dream.
As the meeting rumbles on, the planning becomes a debate: strategy vs. execution. Some people want to keep planning. Others want to try ideas out now. But for all the talk of the target market, KPIs, retention, and market share, there is no clear plan for implementation.
In the end, the only step forward is when the intern shares the date for the next planning meeting on the company’s project management platform.
Why do companies fall into the strategy planning trap?
The strategy planning trap can ensnare any company because, at its root, execution is daunting. Supervising and planning help companies feel safe. It looks like you accomplished a lot.
But in reality, this busy “work” is not producing results. It is efficient but not effective. All the time and effort spent in planning could be invested in high-impact activities that accelerate business success.
Execution forces you to take actions that confront the future. You take on risk. It is unpredictable, and in many industries, unforgivable. With small budgets and high competition, a wayward corporate strategy can leave you eating your rival’s dust.
For that reason, many companies keep planning until they feel capable of good execution. It’s paralysis by analysis. All this waiting around can be a huge mistake.
A rapidly scaling startup can easily charge into the market and take everything while you fumble to plan. Ultimately, the failure of your efforts is not as bad as the failure to try at all.
What is strategy execution?
Strategy execution is implementing a defined set of systems, initiatives, and activities that help your company achieve its strategic goals. It’s an essential part of your strategy. At its core, strategy execution is about making your ideas become a reality by acting on the plans your team put together.
You can put a new strategy to the test through consistent, measurable actions and continually adapt your plan to evolve the company and achieve success.
What are the benefits of strategy execution?
If it isn't apparent yet, strategy execution is the antidote to the strategy planning trap. Execution gets you out of the room and into the field, where all the fun stuff happens! But that's not the only good news, because execution offers several advantages to your business:
- Increased engagement: A business strategy with a clear plan of action fosters collaboration because people better understand what they need to do and how their role impacts the company goals.
- Streamlined company processes: A company that takes action—and measures the impact—can constantly evaluate its efforts and re-orient the strategy and business operations as needed. The more you execute, the more you learn and uncover opportunities to add value.
- Discover competitive advantage: Effective strategic planning is great—but there's only so much your business can grow on a Zoom call. When your company makes moves in the market, you'll kick over rocks and find out more about what your customers want. Those who play the game will get much further than those who always sit on the sidelines.
- People-first effectiveness: It is the people who make up the enterprise. With a strong culture that brings your people together under a shared vision, you can create an environment that supports creativity, hands-on work, and meaningful daily activity.
4 key considerations to make your strategy action-ready
How do we go about implementing company-wide strategy execution? Suppose you want to make sure your best ideas don't dwindle and die on a long-forgotten Excel sheet. In that case, you need to think about implementation during the planning phase.
People talk about the concept of strategy vs. execution when these two pillars of business operations are not opposites or enemies—they're the perfect partners.
Here are four things to keep in mind to make sure you don’t get stuck in the strategy planning trap:
Every goal must have a clear action path in your strategic planning meetings. Every activity must drive action toward desired outcomes. With better alignment across all strategic initiatives, you bring clarity to your roadmap.
If people don't know what they're supposed to do, how will it get done? (hint: it won't). When you align your business plan, you define activities to get to your goals. Make sure it's clear who is responsible for every step of the journey.
An astounding 95% of employees state they don't know or understand their company strategy. When you make strategy everyone's business, you can inform employees about the road forward and how their role is essential.
Give them the context, and you give them the power to be a bigger contributor to the company’s mission.
The people on your team, right there ready to build with you each day, have ideas that could help you achieve your strategic goals—if you give them a chance for strategic thinking.
A company open to innovation can turn all employees into strategists, fostering the enterprise-wide culture and engagement and a higher chance of successful execution.
The old vs. the new way of strategy execution
Here at Cascade, we want to reimagine the future of business strategy. We developed a new model of thinking that better reflects the mood of strategic execution in the digital age.
The old way is built on impersonal systems, rigid step-by-step processes, and top-down management. This shaky foundation often crumbles and falls apart because the companies who use it forget that execution is about people.
As you focus on team alignment and accountability, you can unite people under a shared vision and provide the context they need to bring simplicity to every action. With that clarity, it's much easier to execute.
You might think you need a perfect strategy with all the bells and whistles before starting your journey. The truth? It's better to take action, fail fast, and learn than wait around until it's too late.
Businesses need to break out of the strategy planning trap and start executing, tracking their progress, and adapting the strategy as they learn from their mistakes. This proactive, evolved approach is the only way to reach your goals and make the leap from treading water to a thriving enterprise.