Reflecting on Strategy & Execution

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The best part about being a start-up is that everyone within the founding team gets the opportunity to cross pollinate ideas and execute the market hypothesis so that we can fail fast and pivot if necessary or double down if we discover the secret sauce. However, as a company scales, the short term focus on survival switches to taking a long term view with strategy.

“You’ve got to think about big things while you’re doing small things, so that all the small things go in the right direction.”Alvin Toffler

While in a multi-national corporation setup, strategy takes the centre stage. Unfortunately, coupled with bureaucratic processes, the organisation loses her nimbleness to move quickly and in the process, missed out opportunities that might disrupt or take the company to the next level. Recently, my friend, Michael Smith told a tale based on his experience in trying to pitch a path for Yahoo! Messenger. In his anecdote, he obtained the support of the CEO but the people who blocked the process turned out to be the heads of the region who would most likely to benefit. As a result, a startup coming from nowhere called TenCent, become a multi-national corporation and did what Yahoo! and Microsoft could not do: monetizing their messenger clients.

Whether I am an entrepreneur or a corporate employee, I hold myself to one central tenet: the work ethic that I execute to the best of my ability. Whenever the CEO or manager asked me to solve a problem in the past, I usually ended up fixing the problem with the path of least resistance. However, it generated the image that I am good at execution and lacked strategic thinking.

Self-reflection helps me to clarify what some people has unfairly labelled me with “lack of strategic thinking”. Through a process of being really critical and hard on myself and coupled with the opportunity to sit on strategy brainstorming sessions in my current company, I realised where the problem for me really is. In the agile development process, the way to think about the problem is to break it down into solvable parts and then iterate and improve based on data collected and feedback. I embraced the agile process all the time which is essential in the startup phase. The reason why that approach works for the phase is that the startup is in search for the scalable business model. Hence until you figure out the secret sauce in making your company successful in the form of revenues and profits, the strategic thinking process is not essential. To me, strategy is important but not in an early stage of the startup. Strategy is a complex process where you need to gather different views and options towards culling the beast based on your ability to grasp details while executing on the ground. That comes to my next point.

“Take time to deliberate, but when the time for action comes, stop thinking and go in.” Napoleon Bonaparte

There are three lessons that I learned from working on different aspects of strategy in a team:

1. Focus on the “Why” question and give your team (and not just yourself) to think deeply and do not make your mind until you have seriously evaluated all options: I discovered this the hard way. Some leaders have a pre-conceived notion of the answer to the question and their process of gathering options and opinions is just plain nonsense. You can easily tell those who have already made up their minds but sought consensus as a form of appeasing others who might not agree with the strategy. These are the failure cases I witness at first end, and I kicked myself for not pushing harder to counter. What I discovered is that people with consulting backgrounds tend to treat strategy as a philosophy and not marry it with cold and harsh operational details or capability to execute. That’s why we have some companies failing to achieve greatness in the process. To ask “why”, the leader needs to be able to execute well.

In a corporate organisation, the manager or leader is a facilitator rather than the idea generators. The employees brainstorm and organise the ideas so that the team decide what the key focus or in a short, the strategy that will take us to the next step is.

2. Be critical in everything and focus in building the story behind the strategy: As a builder, I prefer to test and toss ideas out and pushed the imagination rather than being the critic. However, in strategy, the role of the critic is just as important as the mover because the process requires different perspectives and puts everything in context. What comes after all the brainstorming, is the story. What’s the story that you are going to build such that the teams can execute on the strategy? First, provide the why and then how and what.

Chaining the details from a strategy brainstorming process into a document is a difficult one because you have to cut the fat and limit the essence of the strategy into a few bullet points. Although details are not important in the strategy document, they are extremely important when the strategy is disseminated to the teams. That is the difference to why some CEOs fail because they are not good at execution. The essence of the strategy process is to decide what are the things you should not do, so that you can focus on those which will define the organisation.

In my own opinion, to execute well is to go the extra mile and get things done not just for my customers but to people who worked with me.

3. Most people in corporations succeed in being strategic but failed in execution. I can say the same with some people who made the transition from corporations to startups. It’s not a bad thing because the difference in the abilities of such people lies in building a great company compared to an average company. There exist people who can think strategically as well as execute well and there is a direct relationship to that. Most people sees being strategic to set up the process and let the rest follow.

There is more than that, successful execution lies not in setting up different initiatives and putting the teams in place but also the follow up effort to ensure that the idea is not just producing one fluke result. In a startup, focus on one initiative and get 10x return before being strategic in setting up new initiatives as you grow the company. I learned in the hard way that the best people are the so-called “talent” but they are people who have a good heart and execute to the best of their ability. To me, my valuation on good talent is decided on their ability to execute and think with a good heart.

I have already made up my mind that I will found and build the next startup as a CEO in that distant future which I know are some years away. One critical success factor to being a good CEO is the ability to make good business decisions, because the margin of error becomes lesser as you scale the company from a small outfit to a multi-national player. The reason why that future is a few years later rather than now, is that I want to chalk up the 10K hours to understand every detail about an organisation not just technology and strategic partnerships but people management, operations and finance and execute well as a team player. Till that future dawns, I do not limit myself in being a good business operator who can execute but also a manager who can think strategically and marry the beautiful and complex strategic thinking process with cold harsh operational details.

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Bernard Leong

A Pragmatic Idealist