The quote attributed to Thomas Edison of “Vision without execution being hallucination” is one side of the coin. As Roger Martin wrote in a recent HBR article, execution without vision is mindless.
A good analogy I’ve used to express how tightly integrated the two need to be comes from organized sports.
Head coaches usually have the vision of taking their team to the playoffs or even winning the overall championship. The first failure occurs if that vision can’t be translated into strategies adopted by the management & coaching team including how they will get the right players, how those players will be forged into a cohesive, efficient team and which plays are likely to stymy their opponents. A subsequent failure may happen when they try to execute those initiatives. In either case, the head coach may end up looking for a new gig come the end of the season.
Pre-school soccer presents the opposite problem.
Small children have unlimited energy and lots of enthusiasm, and when they are able to make contact with the ball they can usually deliver a solid kick. Unfortunately, they possess limited attention spans, get easily distracted and require frequent gratification. Their rudimentary execution skills are good, but they are just as likely to kick the ball into their own net as they are to score on their opposition.
While most executives I know would not like the comparison to pre-schoolers, in the absence of an overall vision for a company or division, and without that vision being distilled into strategy, the compass guiding the decisions for those executives usually points to either their own ambitions or their assumptions on what is best for the organization.
Pet projects flourish within such environments.
Here are some of the warning signs which indicate your organization may be suffering from mindless execution.
- Projects increase the level of risk to the organization without delivering commensurate value
- Multiple projects whose goals conflict with one another
- Decision making on transformational projects made by a single executive with little or no collaboration with other leaders
- Significant shifts in scope driven from within, not without
- Team members completing project work without understanding the expected benefits or desired outcomes for the project
- Projects are never cancelled
- The Abilene Paradox best defines your organization’s culture
My favorite expression from the Daleks of the popular television show Doctor Who, is what they’d say when their eye stalk was damaged: “My vision is impaired, I cannot see!“. This was usually followed by the Dalek in question being destroyed. If your company’s vision is impaired it might be your company that is Exterminate-d!