Is Strategy Distinct from Execution?

There’s a way-too-academic debate going on in the management literature about what strategy is and is not. In a recent Harvard Business Review article (, Roger Martin, a well-regarded management thinker, exhorts us to ‘stop distinguishing between execution and strategy.’

‘It’s impossible to have a good strategy poorly executed,’ he claims. Oh really? Good strategies are automatically well executed?

But that’s not what Martin means. He continues, ‘… execution actually is strategy – trying to separate the two only leads to confusion.’ Well, there’s certainly confusion! Especially since poor execution, by Martin’s definition, makes a strategy a poor strategy.

Many leaders have told me of strategies that failed when they first attempted to implement them, yet succeeded on the second attempt. Why? Because of the lessons learned from the first attempt. So did a poor strategy suddenly become a good strategy?

No, strategy is not the same as execution. Your strategy captures what you aspire to, why, and how you intend to achieve it. Execution translates that framework into an actionable plan and applies mechanisms to track, manage and recalibrate that plan.

Success requires a good strategy that is well executed. It is a critical distinction.

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