The Execution Advantage

Competing-with-Big-Businesses-1911

Competing-with-Big-Businesses-1911I’ve always put a lot of stock in business execution. The first book and management thinker I was truly influenced by was not Porter’s concepts on Competitive Advantage but (the late) Professor CK Prahalad’s notion of competing on Execution. I’ve been specific about this in a post and Nilofer Merchant did a great job illustrating this in her Harvard Business Review piece. And as a side note, if you haven’t read it, Nilofer’s 11 Rules for Creating value in the Social Era beautifully explains how the social era has fueled the need to re-think the rigidity of organizations and how old notions of “strategy” can in fact chain you down to a rigid line of thinking and purpose.

And so this write up on Forbes by Steve Denning about “the End of Competitive Advantage” really struck a chord with me. Citing a new book by Columbia Professor Rita Gunther McGrath on ‘The End of Competitive Advantage“, Rita says:

“There are indeed examples of advantages that can be sustained, even today. Capitalizing on deep customer relationships, making highly complicated machines such as airplanes, running a mine, and selling daily necessities such as food are all situations in which some companies have been able to exploit an advantage for some time. But in more and more sectors, and for more and more businesses, this is not what the world looks like any more. Music, high technology, travel, communication, consumer electronics, the automobile business, and even education are facing situations in which advantages are copied quickly, technology changes, or customers seek other alternatives and things move on. “

I love this. I’m of the thinking that most leadership styles give too much credit to good idea origination and by extension, “strategy”. I’ve always intently focused on crediting execution in my leadership roles. If you have a good idea, use it. If you have a way to improve on someone else’s idea, use that. Either way, move fast to execution. Rewarding an execution culture is far more useful in my book. You stop wasting time on competing with other team members on who is smarter and more time on how to organize to get it done better and faster.

And this de-emphasis on Competitive Advantage as described by Rita brings Execution into even sharper focus. Strategy moves from the best idea to an execution discipline of intently listening to customers about what they need, figuring out how to frame questions to draw out not product features but the undercurrents that govern their business and market realities and subsequently drives why they work the way they work. Stated more simply, strategy moves from the best idea to the ability to ask the best questions. Then you’re in a position to understand where you need to offer incremental improvement or radically change how work gets done and disrupt markets as you do it.

Sustainable Competitive Advantage implied that you had some strategic differentiator that could carry you through for years and even decades. Given this definition, no competitive advantage is sustainable any more. I much rather bet the farm on a culture of sustainable execution. And let the best business ideas surround this culture.

Execution is the advantage.

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Derek Slater
Derek Slater

Hi Sameer - In my experience if this is managed as an either/or it turns out badly (as with so many aspects of life). Great ideas with bad execution make for a mushy company, cost overruns, slow to market, etc. But I have also seen situations with a ruthless focus on execution and no value placed on ideas. This makes for tremendously unsatisfying work. The effect on many employees is to sit back and wait for upper management to decide when it was time to copy the competition. Profitable? Often. Boring? Always. Good ideas encouraged, turned into strategy, and then executed with passion and precision? Yes please!

Brian Kling
Brian Kling

Sameer, great message here and thanks for the references as well. I fully agree with you on execution; it seems many brands are still focused on the technology piece of the puzzle, which is actually the easiest to solve (implement) - it is the people and their courage to take some leaps of faith and try/fail/try again, the execution of the processes, that really brings about evolution & transformation.

RalfLippold
RalfLippold

Execution and driving innovation forward from concept to reality, and it can and should start small, and on the edge :-) Thanks Sameer for sharing your thoughts on it.

Sameer Patel
Sameer Patel

Thanks for the comment, Derek. I'm not so sure about that. The goal is not to squash the top end of the idea funnel but to design a culture that broadens the bottom end of executable ideas. Every one wants to think of ideas but the best of us aren't satisfied until their ideas see the light of day.

Sameer Patel
Sameer Patel

Thanks Brian. Agree, sometimes its about failing fast. @alexbard had the QOTD this weekend with this tweet: "Don't rush me. I'm making mistakes as fast as I can.".:)

Sameer Patel
Sameer Patel

Thanks for the comment Ralf. Glad you liked the post.

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