Talk – Action = 0

We are what we do

Do stuff

“We need to get better at executing strategy.”

I heard something like this from about five different speakers at the Global Peter Drucker Forum last month. I hate statements like this – at best they’re half-truths, but mostly they are dangerous myths.

This was my response:

Do stuff

“We have to stop talking about strategy development and execution as two different things. What you do IS your strategy – so do more experiments to build a better strategy.”

When we try to separate thinking from action, both suffer. They must be integrated. This creates a management problem. “Thinking” jobs are often higher status and better paid than “doing” jobs – so telling the “thinkers” that they must “do” as well doesn’t go over very well.

But they must.

In fact, I think that if we’re not doing, we’re not thinking. We’re just fantasising.

This has some practical implications.

ideas without actions are fantasies

  • Innovation is executing new ideas to create value. If we skip the execution part, we just have fantasies – a common innovation mistake. The solution is to get the people coming up with ideas involved in validating the value they create, and in the execution.
  • When you’re launching something new (a new product, a startup, or a piece of research), the normal way to do things is to work out the idea first, then the business model. However, you can double your chances of success if you build your idea and your business model simultaneously, not in sequence. Lean startup tools help with this.
  • A brand is not a slogan or a positioning statement, your brand is what you do. It’s the sum total of your organisation’s interactions with your stakeholders. If you want to change your brand, you have to change how you act.
  • An organisational culture is not a vision statement plus some corporate values, it’s what everyone in the organisation does every day. once again, it’s a sum total of interactions. If you want to change your culture, you have to change how you act.

If you look at those four examples, in the flawed versions, thinking and acting are separate, while in the better versions, thinking emerges from acting.

As Jerry Sternin says:

It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than think your way into a new way of acting.

This has one critical implication – our organisations need to be more participative, with shared responsibility and opportunity to both think and do. In the area of strategy, Nilofer Merchant says:

The same few problems crop up, over and over again. We limit participation in strategy creation based on title and rank rather than relevant insight. We insist on lobbing strategy over the wall to the execution team without creating a shared understanding of what matters and why. And we reward individual accomplishment because it is easier than rewarding co-ownership of the ultimate outcomes.

If you want to get better at executing strategy, thinking and executing need to merge. If we treat them as two separate activities, we’re much more likely to fail.

Note: I’ve swiped the title for this post from DOA – the third band I ever saw play live.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

2 thoughts on “Talk – Action = 0

  1. Tim, I think this all started to go downhill when the concept of incremental innovation was invented. Seriously….incremental innovation is improvement.
    In the ‘old’ days we seemed to work on ideas and hoped they become successful, perhaps an innovation.
    We did not about innovation in the 80s and 90s…..we worked on designing solutions.
    As you suggest, people seem not to know this today. Too many people talk about ‘innovation ideas’ – what the heck is that? Aside from acting on ideas and seeing the results before we judge something to be an innovation, consider the new AU innovation results produced today.
    1.3 How do Australian firms innovate?
    Types of innovation
    Australian firms tend to specialise in modifying innovations introduced by other Australian firms.

    This is a fancy way of saying, they copy their ideas. Hopefully, they execute well.

    • The Australian stats are mostly terrifying. Then there’s CBA’s study that says that something like 20% of Australian firms are doing “disruptive” innovation, which might be the most patently absurd statement I’ve run across (I can’t remember the exact number, it might be higher…).

      I agree on incremental innovation, though it does have some uses. The idea that we just work on design solutions, and they might be innovative, is consistent with a suspicion of mine – that the firms that innovate do it because it’s just a natural part of their way of doing business, not because they have an “innovation program.”

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