Published on: June 1, 2011by Michael Sansolo
Any business looking for a compelling discussion of the importance of execution vs. strategy need look no further than the sports pages this past weekend. The world rarely presents a true story so straightforward and so compelling that it demands discussion.
What happened in auto racing this week fits that perfectly.
In truth, there were two great racing stories that griped me and I’m no major racing fan. The first was the Indianapolis 500, where the lead driver cruising to victory crashed on the final turn of the race and lost. It’s a great lesson in focus and finishing the job. It would have been a great story, except it was eclipsed on another track just a few hours later.
At the NASCAR race in Charlotte that night, Dale Earnhardt Jr. similarly lost a lead at the end of the final lap when his car ran out of gasoline. The details are what make this mishap worth discussing.
The race, like most NASCAR events, was hotly contested through all 600 miles. Heading toward the conclusion, Earnhardt’s pit team (based on the reports I read) recognized a problem. Their driver was running in third place and also was low on gas. Stopping in pit row for even a few gallons would cost the incredibly popular driver any chance of winning and break a winless streak that goes back three years.
Earnhardt’s crew chief had a strategy. If Earnhardt hung back a little, the two cars ahead of him were certain to run out of gas first. All the driver had to do was be a little more fuel efficient through the final laps and the victory could be his. And for a time, the strategy was working. In fact, both of the cars ahead of him did need more gas as the crew calculated.
Only fate intervened.
With just a few laps remaining in the race, a crash caused a restart and Earnhardt was in a position where he had to race his car harder than his crew wanted. In the process, he used up the precious fuel he had left and eventually could only coast across the finish line behind six other drivers.
That’s why the story merits discussion. Because so often we do discuss the relative merits of a great strategy or great execution and which is more essential to business success. As usual, the latter wins.
Earnhardt’s team, like so many businesses, had a fabulous strategy and would have won if only everything had gone according to plan. But like so many businesses, the unexpected occurred and when that happens, the best strategy suddenly becomes strangely ineffective. That’s where execution takes over.
As I say, I’m hardly a NASCAR expert - heck, I barely qualify as a fan. It’s quite possible that Earnhardt did everything possible to win, only the competitive landscape changed with that final restart. If so it was a reminder that great strategy and terrific execution sometimes aren’t enough. Sometimes the status quo shifts and what looked like a winning plan suddenly turns into 7th place.
That, too, merits discussion. For so many businesses these days, the path to success is anything but clear and consistent. Rather, it’s littered with unexpected challenges and twists of fate, many of which are unfair and completely unavoidable. In fact, the only thing we can expect these days is the unexpected.
Which is why at your next team meeting take a few minutes to consider Dale Earnhardt Jr. and ask yourself and your team what you would do when the same thing happens to you. Will you win or coast home on fumes?
Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
- KC's View:
- Or, as Captain Jean-Luc Picard explained to Data when the android lost a game to a human being: "Sometimes, you can make no mistakes, do everything right, and still lose."
C’est la vie.