More Than Words.

A lot of tough decisions need to be taken: in politics, in Washington, Brussels, and in business.

Are we ready?

I’m not sure we are. And that’s because of the western hemisphere’s obsession with ‘strategy’, and its concomitant eschewal of execution.

These days, everybody wants to be ‘strategic,’ to work on ‘strategy.’ Folk are desperate to have the ‘S’ word in their job title, to be seen as a ‘strategic thinker.’

‘You must be really good at ideas and strategy, Nick,’ they say, ‘because you’re an entrepreneur.’

Well, I hope that I can have (and have had) the odd good idea, developed a half-decent strategy. But that’s not what makes a successful entrepreneur, or a successful anything.

Because being successful — in any walk of life — is ultimately about Getting Things Done. It’s about execution.

But this simple truth is still not recognised by many people.

Why not?

‘Strategy,’ whilst sometimes being intellectually complex, is comfortable. Indeed, ‘doing strategy’ flatters those of us who believe we have been well-educated. It feeds our egos. The education point is particularly germane: ‘strategy’ very often is, effectively, essay-writing; it’s back to school, it’s about showing how clever we are, our ability to develop a line and pursue it, overcoming objections and tying up any loose ends in a neat conclusion.

And we, the liberal arts graduates of the big schools of Britain and America, the people who now, in different ways, hold key positions of authority and responsibility, measure each other on our ability to do this. With glee. We love nothing more than an intellectual tussle over a glass of Malbec; it’s how we unwind. ‘Strategy’, and ‘strategic thinking’, therefore have a disproportionate currency among decision-makers.

This preference for ‘strategy’ is compounded by the (helpful, if you’re a ‘strategist’) fact that strategy and ideas per se are notoriously difficult to value. It’s a deeply subjective affair. And even a half-decent ‘strategist’ can usually ensure that their ‘strategy’ is sufficiently malleable and flexible to accommodate a total volte-face, if necessary: We have always been at war with Oceania.

But as well as being comfortable and deliciously vague, ‘strategy’ — by definition — enjoys the luxurious position of being theoretical. It does not involve sleeves-rolled-up, I’m-ready-to-have-a-difficult-conversation grind. This of course suits a startling amount of many senior people who, as I have written elsewhere, seem to have a cultural ‘allergy’ to such work.

Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are especially guilty . Time after time, speech after speech, campaign after campaign their behaviour suggests that they believe, consciously or otherwise, that ideas in themselves are good enough. Depressingly, this is doubly so if those ideas capture the attention of the press and dominate tomorrow’s headlines. This is partly because, increasingly, many politicians, of all parties, have never done a ‘real job’ before entering politics.

But even on the off chance that they do make a brilliant speech, have a fantastic idea or develop a sensible policy, their ability to actually ‘make it happen’ is directly dependent on the ability of public servants to execute. And this compounds the problem — because public servants, certainly the senior ones, often have very little incentive to execute (execution risking measurement, and measurement risking failure) and every incentive to write more papers, to critique, to hold ‘strategic offsites’ and planning days. Many a latter-day Sir Humphrey might easily have received his or her knighthood for ‘services to displacement activities.’

Anglo-American procrastination however, is nothing compared to what we see across the Channel. The scale of the eurozone crisis, now over a year old, is such that one might have expected even Nero to buckle down. Yet the people of Europe, not to mention the bond markets, still wait to see real action, as opposed to increasingly vacuous words.

Tragically, the private sector is often little better. Naturally more predisposed than government to ‘get things done’, through the profit motive, it is surprising just how fatigued Marx’s workers of the world are from years of corporate jargon and management ‘speak.’

Equally, corporations themselves are fed up of consultants who come in and, at extortionate day rates, elegantly and eloquently define the specific nature of a problem — but have no real interest in sticking around to actually make any difference.

None of this is to say that strategy has no place. That would be absurd. One has to have a clear idea on one’s direction of travel, otherwise one can very quickly become a busy fool. And we’ve all met plenty of those.

Ideas and creative thinking, as I discussed recently on The Huffington Post, are absolutely vital and might just provide the spark to reignite our cooling economies.

It is simply that ideas alone do not get the baby bathed. Strategy is, to steal from the language of the MBA (itself long on strategy, short on execution) necessary but by no means sufficient.

And that is doubly the case when we are — jointly — faced with the scale of the crisis that confronts us all in 2012.

We are not living in ‘strategic’ times. We are living in ‘survival’ times, where the only strategy in town is not to go under; as an individual, a business, a nation.

Comparisons of our times with those of war are specious, and insulting to those who know what suffering really means. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from more dangerous times. Particularly when it comes to execution.

And in this respect, in 2012 we might do well to remember the pithy words of Lord Nelson, who knew a thing or two about Getting Things Done:

“Nevermind about maneuvers, go straight at ’em”.

Monticello LLP

– this piece first kindly published in 2012 by The Huffington Post