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Execution-style thinking can be the death of progress

Execute, execute, execute. Managers in large organizations are promoted for their ability to execute, which is useful when scaling up a successful business model. The execution mindset becomes an obstacle, however, when firms need to pivot to a new model. The search for insight, says Duncan Simester, NTU Professor of Marketing at MIT Sloan, starts in the weeds.

Duncan Simester “Although strategy asks big questions,” Simester believes, “the answers can be found by focusing on specific problems and concrete examples.” He uses the oil-drilling business to illustrate his point. In the past, it was common practice for a company to purchase rights to an oil field and start drilling multiple wells. The dilemma: drilling is costly and only one in a dozen or so wells will yield oil under that scenario. The more strategic oil companies are now thinking harder about where to drill before they begin—a practice that is bringing them closer to their goal of finding oil in half their wells.

First things first: delegate

As essential as it is, setting aside time for strategic thinking is often considered a luxury—a luxury no competitive business can afford to ignore, however. Simester says that delegation is key to making the time. In fact, in his work with managers from large organizations, he calibrates the length of his programs to compel participants to delegate in a meaningful way. “When managers have to rely on their teams to perform in their absence,” he explains, “they often are surprised to discover how well they can execute without them. This epiphany allows managers to begin the transition from acting as mere facilitators to becoming strategic leaders.”

But strategic thinking, Simester emphasizes, is not just the domain of senior leadership. “In startups and small companies,” he says, “senior leaders tend to do the heavy lifting on strategy. That pattern often persists as firms scale up. The problem is that, as a company expands, senior leaders grow more distant from the information they need to make strategic decisions.” Enterprises that mature successfully, he believes, create mechanisms that allow strategy to pass up through the organization, not down.

Bottom line: the more strategic the thinking across an organization, the more strategic—and productive—the execution. So a more successful mantra might be: Think. Execute. Think.


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