The Hare, the Tortoise and the Strategy-Execution Gap

The Hare, the Tortoise and the Strategy-Execution Gap

Ask any CEO what keeps them up at night and I’ll bet most will say their biggest nightmare is strategy execution. In fact, it’s estimated that more than 60% of strategies are not successfully implemented.

Several years ago, I helped launch two businesses within a successful software company. Let’s call Venture A “the Hare” and Venture B “the Tortoise”. The experience taught me how two contrasting approaches to strategy execution can lead to two very different outcomes.

Just as in the fable, the Hare seemed to possess most of the advantages in the beginning. It was seen as innovative and a much sexier proposition than the Tortoise:

Venture A - The Hare Venture B - The Tortoise
High profile Low Profile
CEO’s #1 strategic growth initiative Run as ‘skunkworks’ outside of the CEO’s purview
Substantial access to resources (funding, talent pool, internal support, etc.) Constrained resources
Hockey stick revenue projections Strong but modest revenue projections

From the start, both businesses had highly ambitious strategic objectives. But in the end, the Tortoise was able to successfully execute its strategy while the Hare languished.

Why did the Tortoise succeed but the Hare fail? By sticking to four basic principles to ensure strategy and execution were aligned, the Tortoise quickly overcame inertia and transformed into a thriving business.

Here’s how.

Define Your North Star

Do you know which road you’re running down? Not having a clearly defined focal point - a North Star - will handicap your strategy right from the start. While it’s great to have ambitious and innovative goals for the business, the goals should be achievable and aligned with what you do well.

What does this mean? It means tempering the urge to go after the next shiny nickel by focusing on what you’re already good at and further playing to your strengths. This could mean introducing new products or targeting new markets but your north star is your ‘source of truth’ against which everything should be tested, validated and adjusted.

What the Tortoise lacked in executive support and investment, it made up for with a clear purpose. Compared to the Hare, we placed a much more disciplined and at times myopic focus on the customer and value proposition as we developed the business plan. This made us agile and efficient while ensuring internal and customer-facing activities stayed on point.

Venture A - The Hare Venture B - The Tortoise
No sharp strategic focus - many ‘projects’ competing for money and resources Highly focused on core use case
Targeting a customer the business didn’t know well nor have existing capabilities to serve Targeting an existing customer
Innovative technology but shifting use cases and targets Limited resource availability forced us to learn fast, fail fast and adjust
Clear ‘North Star’ enabled disciplined operating parameters

Having a well-defined North Star meant we could fly the plane while we were building it.

Make Hard Trade-offs

At the heart of any strategy are choices and trade-offs about how resources will be allocated to achieve certain outcomes. This requires placing limited bets and deprioritizing other efforts. Still, most executives struggle to understand the implications of not making effective trade-offs. In companies that poorly execute strategy, a staggering 60% don’t link their strategies to budgets, guaranteeing a disconnect between commitments and resources.

So often, leaders establish ‘stretch goals’ to try and motivate their people to achieve big outcomes. They’re being unrealistic about the true capacity of the business and end up overcommitting resources to activities out of whack with strategic initiatives. People feel set up to fail which spirals into cynicism, mediocrity and internal politics.

The budget process is one of the most important tools in closing the strategy execution gap. Defining what’s “in budget” and what’s out is fundamental to establishing and communicating critical trade-offs across the business.

Operating as though every decision could mean life or death, the Tortoise made sure any allocation of resources was directly tied to its overarching business objectives. The Hare, supported by deep pockets, was less compelled to ensure this alignment from the beginning and failed to execute as a result.  

Venture A - The Hare Venture B - The Tortoise
No clearly defined budget Budget was critical to ensure limited resources were optimized
Resource availability made it less compelling to make hard trade-offs Forced to decide on key trade-offs from the start
Constant scope and investment creep Strong alignment between critical inputs (investments, resources and activities) and desired output (strategic outcome)
Stakeholders were confused on key priorities

Follow the Three C’s - Communicate, Communicate and Communicate Some More

Many business leaders operate as though the only place for strategy is in the corner office or the boardroom. This overlooks a critical ingredient for success: translating strategy into the everyday for your people.

A recent survey estimated only 28% of employees feel fully connected to the purpose and identity of their organization. Mobilizing your people around your plans is key to unleashing great execution. Articulating the strategy in human terms - what capabilities the company will need to build, and what skills and talent are required to do so - helps people understand how they can contribute and make a difference.

Although the Hare had a strong head start, communication from the CEO was limited and compartmentalized. By contrast, the Tortoise’s communication was purpose driven. Ongoing, consistent communication is key to aligning people, process and purpose. Without a common understanding of an initiative’s goals and objectives, moving any strategy forward will always be a struggle.

Venture A - The Hare Venture B - The Tortoise
Infrequent and siloed communication left groups competing for attention and without a common goal Strong and consistent communication linking objectives to activities across functions
Lots of political infighting and posturing Unity of purpose led to higher empathy and understanding and fueled productivity
Without a clear strategic use case, budget, or measurable results - key stakeholders were less connected and morale suffered Constant feedback loop allowed people to see cause and effect - motivating them to do their best

Master What You’re Good at Today

Measure twice, cut once…

Alex Honnold, viewed by many as the best rock climber in the world, was the first person to climb El Capitan in Yosemite National Park without the aid of ropes. He downplayed the fear that the smallest mistake could kill him by saying every finger and toe hold of the 3,200 ft ascent had been visualized and practiced a hundred times. By the time he was committed to his free solo, it was all about muscle memory and executing.

Achieving your strategic objectives is all about mastering what you’re doing today and not what you want to be doing tomorrow. Put differently, successful execution is more a result of being good at little things, as opposed to being great at innovative things. Building a culture of operational excellence requires motivating employees to take pride in doing things for their own sake, not just to reach a specific performance goal. Better still, when people feel good about the contributions they’re making day-to-day, it’s almost always stickier than a raise or promotion.

Giving yourself the best chance to close the strategy execution gap requires sticking to the basics: define your North Star, set priorities, communicate openly, and focus on the task at hand.

There are plenty of Hares in the world but we know who wins the race. The execution gap is as big as a leader allows it to be. Keep your operating framework for your strategy simple. Then, progress can occur organically, making the execution gap much easier to overcome.