Execution beats strategy

Slow execution puts a huge pressure on a team to get their bets right. Competition that can move faster will catch up even if they had a false start.

Execution beats strategy

Kath Korevec, Sr Director of Product at Github, asked a great question last week.

What's more important? Product strategy or product execution?

My take is that product execution will beat strategy 99% of the time. But first, let me tell you about Monster Chess.

Monster Chess — escaping bad beginnings

Monster Chess is a chess variant where White has only the king and 4 pawns, but they move 2 pieces in each turn. Black has a complete set and can only move 1 piece each turn.

Image from https://greenchess.net/rules.php?v=monster

If you could pick a side, which one would it be?

When looking at the board, it seems like Black has the advantage. They have an army of pawns. They have horses that can trick you, towers that can threaten entire rows and columns. They have the mighty, powerful queen.

White, on the other side, only has a small set of the weakest pieces to protect their king.

But it's actually pretty hard for Black to win. Two moves vs. one will compound rapidly, and things are practically over if White manages to queen a pawn.

An increased ability to execute can lead to a significant advantage against your competition. So much so, that you can get the upper hand even if you started in a vulnerable position.

Strategy is never perfect

Monster Chess is a great case study but reality is even more complicated. Markets are continually moving, customer needs evolve, technology becomes obsolete. If you're a product team, you're trying to hit a moving target.

That's why you can never have a perfect strategy. What is true today may not hold tomorrow. Going too long without double-checking your assumptions is a sure way to hit a wall — Uber and Airbnb have disrupted entire industries that seemed to have the perfect lock-in on their markets.

Of course, it's good to have a plan. I'm not here saying that companies should run wild and throw things on the wall to see what works. What I'm saying is that a team that can get rapid feedback on what works will have the upper hand.

Slow feedback cycles are expensive

The cost of having a slow execution grows exponentially. That's because it impacts not only your ability to ship, but also your decision making and appetite for risk.

If it takes you months to ship features, you'll have to make sure it's right. Because if you get it wrong, it might take you another few months before you can fix things. So you'll spend a lot of time debating features, designs, go-to-market strategy. You'll need meetings after meetings to review your projects.

On the other hand, a team that can ship every week won't have the same pressure. If they make a wrong turn, they'll be able to fix things the following week. They can run more experiments more often, and gather feedback to adjust their strategy accordingly.

Invest in delivery

A team that can execute well and ships early will have the same advantage as White in Monster Chess. Even if you start in a bad place, you can still catch up with your competition who cannot afford to make a bad bet.

More importantly, great execution reduces the pressure on the team. People can try more things and discover new opportunities because the cost of being wrong is low.

This article is part of our newsletter Scaling Small. Subscribe below to get more posts like that in your inbox. You can also find me on Twitter @stenpittet.