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Execution Trumps Strategy
Dethroning the complacent
This article was originally published on Profiles. Thank you to the folks at Profiles for inviting me to share some of my thoughts.
“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
— J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
On the Finiteness of Time
Not even the world’s greatest fortune can buy back a second of time.
We are all commonly bound by 24 hours, the question then is: what shall we do with our precious minutes as they reduce ever-closer to zero?
Maybe that’s dramatic…maybe not.
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The Work and the Soul
Unproductive strategy meetings and corporate political drama wear heavy on the soul, and I often found myself drained early in my career when I felt that I was spending 80 percent of my time planning and twenty percent of my time doing actual work. This is because I don’t care to waste my time on things that don’t matter.
Throughout my career, there have been many moments where things, committees, or childish corporate drama have interfered with my goals and the goals of the institutions for which I’ve worked. When things like this begin to occur too frequently, I generally change roles because I don’t particularly care to work with children, as that was not my professional aspiration.
So, I care about execution a lot: my execution, my team’s execution, and the execution of the company for which I work. But not everyone does, and my conjecture is that over time companies that forget to focus on what matters (i.e., a pretty good strategy and relentless execution) will fold to a competitor who is more nimble and focused on eating the complacent’s lunch.
Your Margin is Someone’s Opportunity
Start-ups live and die by execution. If you can’t execute to deliver a differentiated product or acquire new customers—and do so quickly—your business will fail. I saw it happen first hand when Fast imploded.
Product market fit is forged, not found.
This hyperfocus on execution is a direct consequence of venture capital because, for the most part, start-ups are quite literally running out of money the entire time they’re operating, which is a great incentive for getting something done.
Established incumbents, on the other hand, don’t have the same incentive to execute. Instead, large corporations tend to focus on the following:
Protecting existing revenue
Minimizing short-term risk
Strategizing against competitors
Dealing with internal corporate bickering
When a company is large enough and has sufficient scale, these priorities seem quite reasonable. But the executives focusing on them have forgotten that the world is changing—quickly. Software and innovation compound in a way that lets businesses—particularly technology companies—leave their competition in the dust. So, while risk-aversion may be an acceptable strategy in the short term, it’s certainly not a good business strategy in the long term.
This behavior is not true of all big companies, and I believe there is a new era of management focused on disrupting the legacy model of death-by-endless-PowerPoint-meetings.
In fact, we are living through the transformation of one company at this moment as Elon Musk, one of the greatest capitalists of all time, takes over Twitter and explicitly addresses meetings and work output.
But this all leads me to a natural question: why exactly do big businesses place so much emphasis on strategy and meetings?
Alignment Feels Good
When you have a large organization, you typically have to spend a lot of time checking off boxes, building consensus, strategizing, attending meetings, and managing stakeholders.
These are all reasonable things within the context of a large company that’s trying to achieve alignment across several different teams and departments, and it certainly feels good to show off a fancy PowerPoint during a meeting or cultivate a sense of “togetherness.”
But what feels good and what is actually good are rarely the same thing (in fact, I’d generally argue that the opposite).
This becomes clear when you consider that planning and alignment related tasks are never free. They cost the business time, energy, and often employee satisfaction. Moreover, these tasks are often completely unrelated to the core skill sets of the people doing the work, and they also may not even be correlated to the success of the work in question.
That’s not to say planning, alignment, and strategizing are bad—that would be stupid. But there is an optimal balance between planning and execution that most teams haven’t yet reached.
The Execution-Planning Tradeoff
This diagram says a lot but, in short, you are probably over-planning.
To elaborate, there is a 1-to-1 tradeoff between planning and executing. If we think about the work that we produce, we have to do stuff to generate it. As I mentioned before, we certainly have to gather requirements, find customer pain points, and then build a product, feature, ad creative, or something else. I would categorize all of this work as executing.
Everything else that is focused on getting consensus from some other body of people (e.g., managers or executives), socializing an idea, or appeasing some person who relents about how they don’t like something about what you’re doing belongs in the “planning” bucket. This categorization is not perfect of course, but I think you get the idea.
Obviously doing zero planning would be reckless and doing zero executing would probably get you fired but the ambiguity of all of the time between is where souls go to die.
And, as I said before, you have to really be reflective and evaluate whether or not the meetings you’re holding or are in are actually constructive to the output you’re trying to produce or whether it’s just time wasted trying to make people feel good.
Work that is hard is frustrating, mentally taxing, and stressful. This is good. This is the body telling you that what you are doing is worthwhile and not trivial.
Existence is a perpetual search for meaning and I long to be a part of something beautiful.
Building meaningful relationships brings me joy but when I’m at work, I want to do work that is impactful—not really socialize1.
So I ask that you reflect on how you allocate your time, how you take time from your colleagues, and how that impacts the work you do because time is all we have and we have to be relentless with managing it.
Some Recommended Readings is perfect. It's also a great reminder of why I'm excited to be a limited partner of The Fintech Fund, if you’re a fintech company raising money, talk to Nik.
Goldman Sachs Research published their analysis of Powell’s latest Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) speech where they estimate the federal funds rate will likely peak in 2023 between 5-5.25%. It’s worth reviewing and it’s also worth listening to the speech itself by Powell.and Alex Johnson recorded a great Fintech Recap podcast and talked about the latest drama in Fintech, it was a fun listen and they always give great insight.
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Of course I do like to socialize with my colleagues but it’s better to dedicate time explicitly for this purpose. Work is for work.