Monday, February 7, 2011

The Social Network

Somewhere over the Atlantic, I watched The Social Network on a small TV above the aisle of an American Airlines flight. I found the movie a bit grating, honestly. Perhaps well acted – but perhaps too well acted. There's something less-than-pleasant about watching anything that compellingly depicts reality with no clear cut hero or protagonist.


The big question raised in my mind by the film was that of strategy vs. execution. I'm sure I'm not the first to have this observation, but I haven't read a single review of this movie, so I have no idea if I'm rehashing old ideas. The basic question seems to be, whether true to reality or not, whether Mark Z deserved to cash in on Facebook when he was "merely" the execution arm. The movie contends that some buff twins came up with the idea, and he simply ran with it, leaving them in the dust, whining.


I used to say I wanted to be a strategist. I love wrangling with new ideas, and new concepts. I love the chess game of competitive strategy. I love thinking up new ways to position, communicate and shape the desires of the market. Strategy is fun.  Some of the brightest minds coming out of business school essentially do nothing but strategy at places like Bain and McKinsey. For those with the knack for strategy, it's fun and easy. And, since it seems to be a non-universal skill, those who can do it tend to be prized by consulting firms. In my years working with strategists and doing strategy, I would liken it to an athletic prowess. If you happen to have the musculature to swing a bat or run a marathon, you have a certain gift. Everyone can try.. but some just seem to excel.


Here's the kicker though. There's a very analogous set of skills associated with execution – which not every strategist has. People think of execution as the "work." You get dirty. You get bruised. But I will tell you from years of execution, there are definitely Michael Phelps in that camp too. Strategists tend to diminish this, but it just isn't so. A great salesman or a great clipboard or a great event planner are all people with the musculature to excel. The rest of us can try – and goodness knows we do – but you know when you're in little league next to a major leaguer. Same bat. Same ball. Different class of outcome.


Truth be told, there are many ways to configure a business team. You can try to find some sort of Michael Jordan character, who can play multiple sports well. But, he's very rare. Or, you can take a page from supply chains and hire the most talented players for each position. But here's the secret… you must treat the Event Planner and the Clipboard and the Strategist as equally Olympian, if that's their skill level. Whether curling or speed skating or ice dancing, a gold medal is a gold medal. 


Great executers are rare – as rare as great strategists. Neither ideas nor execution are sufficient to make a business. You need both.

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