• Categories: Role of the board
  • Published: Dec 15, 2022
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We have long been interested in what is often referred to as the strategy/execution gap. Many credible authors have addressed shortcomings in strategic planning and the gap between resultant plans and their implementation. [1]

However, we were struck by how succinctly and relevantly some of that thinkingconsistent over 30 years or morehas been updated by Geoff Marlow in a recent piece titled The strategy execution gap. [2] He describes the gap as ‘an unbridgeable chasm’.

While the focus of Marlow’s musings is leadership at the senior executive team level, anyone with board-level responsibilities would do well to read this article from a board perspectiveMany, if not most, boards still take an active part in some kind of regular strategic planning ritual and expect that effective action will follow.

Marlow begins with a concern about what he sees as a disconnect between ‘the big picture’ and operational execution. He attributes this to internally fragmented executive planning processes and the tortured communication processes between different levels of management. As a result, not only do plans not get implemented but organisational environments become toxic. Quoting his colleague Richard Clayton:

Everybody involved thinks they are doing the right thing but are speaking completely different languages.

At the core of Marlow’s contention that conventional thinking cannot bridge the long recognised (and widening) strategy/execution gap is that:

The world has become too dynamic, uncertain, and unpredictable for the legacy strategy approach in which senior executives devised a strategy, along with their favoured strategy consulting firm, turned this into a high-level plan, broke this down into detailed plans, and rolled these out for execution.

In today’s increasingly volatile world, by the time detailed plans are ready to be rolled out, the world has moved on. The underlying assumptions on which the plans are based are no longer valid. As Marlow reminds us, the idea that senior executives could cook up a strategy and then hand it off to others was christened a ‘grand fallacy’ by Henry Mintzberg nearly 30 years ago.

The basic problem is that formal (strategic planning) procedures never have been and never will be able to forecast discontinuities of the kind being regularly experienced today. These realities reinforce the inherently oxymoronic nature of ‘strategic planning and were the basis for Mintzberg’s advocacy of ‘emergent strategy’.

Citing as an example the way the onset of Covid-19 negated everyone’s plans, Marlow tells us that:

The problem is that old-school organisational strategies only capture a narrow, limited, snapshot at the time of formulation. These snapshots are far too static, superficial, and simplistic to be of use in dealing with the rapidly evolving dynamics affecting today’s organisations.

Marlow also cites other now apparent but formerly unpredictable factors such as:

increasing political polarisation and its resultant instability
the Russian invasion of Ukraine affecting global energy and food supplies
the onset of rates of inflation that have been absent for decades.

Given the fundamental inability of strategic planning to forecast discontinuities like these, Marlow muses as to why organisations continue to cling to legacy mindsets, attitudes and behaviours around strategy and execution even though their fatal flaws have been long known.

A major factor Marlow suggests is that senior executives have failed to realise a shift is needed in the role they play in pursuit of organisational success. What their organisations need them to do is shift from being decision makers to being creators of the:

conditions in which good decisions get made and implemented dynamically, rapidly, repeatedly, and adaptively enough for their ever-changing reality conditions.

We would argue that this idea that corporate leaders need to focus on creating the right conditions for others to make decisions applies equally, if not more so, to the role of the board. Marlow is clear that decision making would be better carried out lower down the organisation hierarchy where:

people are in most direct day-to-day contact with customers
people are most closely involved in everyday value creation and see what’s working well, what’s working less well, and what’s not working at all
the maximum diversity of perspectives comes together from multiple generational cohorts.

To get the necessary change, the old-style view that an organisation’s leadership comes from a senior executive elite and everyone else (including the board?) are the followers, must change. Leadership in the future, he argues, will be by:

those who create conditions in which sense making, decision making, and action taking are effectively joined up, iterated, embedded, and distributed throughout the organisation.

To Marlow, the legacy notion of leadership as something done to everyone else by an elite group of senior executive decision makers is not just outdated but is reinforced by those senior executives’ reliance on mainstream consulting firms to take on the heavy lifting. Those consulting firms, he contends, typically operate by mobilising large numbers of junior consultants who deploy one-size-fits-all, cookie cutter approaches with limited aims (the reduction of risk and the maximisation of profitability). As a result, organisations do not build the internal capability they need to create and sustain the culture of innovation, agility and adaptiveness they need to thrive in an increasingly uncertain and unpredictable world. [3]

In conclusion, Marlow suggests the following questions for reflection:

Is the strategy/execution gap still widening in your organisation?
Have senior executives [and, we would suggest, the board] woken up to the fact that their role has fundamentally shifted from making decisions to creating conditions?
Is there a focused, strategic transformation underway to address the increasingly urgent need to create a future-fit culture of innovation, agility, and adaptiveness?
If not, why not?

To these we would add:

What is the board itself doing to create the kind of conditions that would ensure senior management are realising the potential of the organisation?
What is the board doing to inform and satisfy itself that the way decisions are being made, and at what level in the organisation, is producing the best results for customers?




[1] For example, Henry Mintzberg (The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning), Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton (Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense, and The Knowing-Doing Gap), David Maister (Strategy and the Fat Smoker).

[2] https://geoffmarlow.substack.com/p/the-strategy-execution-gap

[3] Further complementary explorations on these themes by Marlow can be found in Senior executives must give up their decision rights and From Strategy to Sense Making