Execution is a Big Learning challenge

‘Vision without execution is just hallucination’ Thomas Edison

Vision & strategy is nothing without execution. Execution is often presented as a challenge of discipline. However the discipline at the heart of great execution is learning. Organisations need to use Big Learning systems to adaptive lay execute their strategy

Vision & Strategy are Hypotheses

The PowerPoint deck might land on the desk with a reassuring thud. The tables of data, the charts and the pictures explaining the vision and strategy are impressive. No matter how excited your strategy team is their plan is just still a guess.

Competitors don’t sit still. Customers are fickle. You underestimated the effort. You over estimated the upside. Reality is always different when you execute a strategy. Local leaders need to adapt the strategy to the reality they must tackle.

Organisations have tried to enforce stronger execution discipline to prevent this adaptation. They worry that the fragmentation of approach will cause issues. However a disciplined execution of a strategy that is not fit doesn’t add any value and can be disastrous. The learning opportunities for the organisation are lost.

Learning and adapting in coordinated ways throughout the organisation is the art of Big Learning. If your vision and strategy can’t adapt to reality, it is still a hallucination, no matter how widely it is shared. Organisations need to focus less on the discipline and more of the coordination of learning throughout the organisation. Finding effective adaptations and proofs of the strategy at work, changing to align and sharing them widely is what brings a vision to life.

A Vision that is Yours Alone is an Hallucination

Steve Case once said ‘Vision without execution is hallucination’. Before you get to execution, a vision goes awry if it isn’t shared by the others who must do the work.

Read most standard texts on leadership and they will begin with the leader setting the vision of a team. ‘Leader [insert verb] the vision’ defines much leadership training. As a result the focus become crafting a compelling vision and communicating it in the most persuasive way. Leaders are then expected to ensure the team delivers to that vision. Case’s comment highlights the need to ensure delivery.

There is one flaw in this approach to leadership:

An hallucination is something you think is real but others cannot see. The fact you can see it is not enough. The team cannot see what you see no matter how good your communication skills. People cannot deliver what they cannot see.

Team visions are far more effective when created by the team rather than the leader. Allowing others to contribute to shaping the vision leverages their potential to find personal purpose, to contribute more and to improve the picture. It deepens their understanding of the situation and the drivers of change. People who co-create make their own sense. The work of building a vision engages and enables others to own the vision and lead adaptation over time. The full passions, expertise and experience of the team can contribute to shaping the outcome. That work is the best guarantee the vision is seen and well understood by all.

Imposing a vision and sustaining that imposition is really hard work and largely counterproductive. No amount of telling conveys the richness of the leaders vision in a busy age of continuous partial attention. In complex scenarios the leader’s vision may be partial or too simplistic. Confusion and misinterpretation are likely. In networks there will be competing visions and competing alternatives for work. Critically an imposed vision is always the leader’s and often a compromise of purpose and passion for the team. Abundance has been replaced with compromise.

A leader’s vision is rarely seen as open for improvement even if the leader seeks input. Power differences discourage feedback. The worst outcome for organisations seeking to respond to changing markets is to be stuck thoughtlessly delivering a dated vision imposed by a now out of touch leader. Pushing the vision through will disengage others, destroy the leader’s influence and jeopardise the business.

Next time you need a vision to guide the work of a team think ‘Team [insert verb] vision’. The leader should be the facilitator not dictator of that process.

Execution is far easier when a vision is co-created. We all need fewer hallucinating leaders.