Graham Birkenhead, October 6 2020

Doing Operations

This is the second of two articles exploring the connection (or rather, often the lack of it) between strategy and operations.  Last week we discussed how ‘doing strategy’ was about keeping in your mind’s eye on what you want to be and where you want to go as a company, while at the same time being aware of the art of the possible. The future is unknown and for many is a scary place; it is, however, the land of opportunity.  Real world knowledge and some ‘planning’ can help you plot a course to that future; execution will get you there.


Don’t get hung up on words

One of the issues with the whole subject of strategy, is that it has a relatively narrow set of vocabulary associated with it, and practically everyone has a slightly (or significantly) different understanding or interpretation of what the words mean.  

Not only that, when considering how to transform strategy into something that can be executed, it seems there are many words missing from strategic-operational lexicography.    And without the words, we don’t have some important tools for thought - or concepts. 

My advice to clients as we work through strategy and operations is “don’t get hung up on words - but focus on the concepts behind them” - that way, everyone can see the same thing, even if they are speaking different languages.


The Means and the Ends - Never confuse the two.

Strategy exists in the mind (sure it can be written on paper) and is a vision of the future we want to create, the outcome, or the ‘ends’. As such, it can be infinite and limited only by the imagination. Operations provide the ‘means’ by which we achieve those ends. The means exist in the real, finite, governed-by-the-laws-of-physics, world.  The means and the ends have to be connected for things to happen.  Never confuse the two.

 Victorious warriors win first and then go to war.   While defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.     Sun Tzu - Art of War


Connecting the Vision with Execution in 3 Steps – use Why, What and How

When considering how to operationalize your strategy, there are 3 components that you need.  These can range from being a few scribbled notes (or even just in your head), to something much more solid - it’s whatever is appropriate to the job:

1. The Why (or So What).  This is the strategic goal - the vision of a future point in time.  Here you may envision yourself on a warm beach having a long stretch of ‘me time’, letting all the stresses of the last year dissolve away - the outcome is you are feeling great and ready to take on the next year.

2. The What. This is the objective and it is defining and measurable.  This is where you set the dates you will be on your vacation, the destination, and maybe the budget - you could call it ‘organize my vacation’.   You may have a second objective that will contribute to the same goal: ‘ensure my deputy can run everything for 2 weeks’.

3. The How.  This is the detailed plan - the to-dos, the checklists - and the dates by which you (or someone) need to do various things - you may not want to leave your travel and accommodation bookings till the day before you go.  Your plan is all the things you have to make happen to get to where you are going on those specified dates and within the budget.


Building the machine

'The machine' is a phrase that I use to encapsulate the living, working organization.  The machine does the doing; it executes.  There are 2 key elements:

 That sounds quite obvious, but the reality is that ‘the machine’ - or your company - has to constantly evolve to optimize itself for achieving not only your current strategic goal, but the next goal and then the next. My observation is that many companies intuitively know this, yet try to make the existing and often inappropriate organizational structure work.  They try to make the process fit the organizational design, rather than the other way round.   This often doesn’t work well.


Keep your eye on the goal 

While you are executing the plan, you have got to keep asking the question “are we getting there?”. It is SO easy to be busy delivering product and serving the customer, that you lose sight of your own, or your company’s, longer-term health or growth.  You have to do both.  But we know that doing strategy is often scary because it forces you to confront the unknown. It’s far easier to stick with what is understood - doing real stuff in the here and now.

Progression Checks are needed to keep reviewing the “are we getting there?” question.  They ask: 


Pulling it all together – 6 things to ask yourself:

1.     Do I see a snapshot of the future I want to create? My goal.

2.     Can I identify some big chunks of activity that will come together to help realize that goal? My objectives.

3.     Do I have a to-do or checklist with dates and people to achieve the objectives? My plans.

4.     Do I review progression, as well as keeping things going day-to-day; and keep my eye on the goal?

5.     Am I adjusting my 'machine' so that it will execute my plans and actually achieve my objectives and goals?

6.     Am I keeping this simple, or trying to turn it into a bureaucratic process?


If you need any help with making this happen for you, give me a call.

Written by

Graham Birkenhead


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