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World-renowned builders have often said that anyone’s design can (and probably will) fail if it isn’t built properly. A statement also known as: good strategy dies with poor execution. On the other hand, many-a world-class architect will be more than happy to explain that if builders don’t have an inspiring design to work with, the results will be less than stellar. In this latter comment, essentially, we can see that great execution can’t deliver much without some sort of vision or strategy. Do you agree?

So, here’s the question: which is more important – strategy or execution? The answer: both!

A great historical personality will help me demonstrate, Part I – How great strategy dies with poor execution: Gustave Eiffel (1832-1923). If his name sounds familiar, it’s because he was the engineer behind the Eiffel Tower itself. Eiffel was an extremely ingenious and creative metalwork engineer who inspired vision within his own organization. His vision led to the building, with stellar execution, of many bridges and buildings across Europe. In fact, Eiffel and his company won awards, accolades and renown for creative and visionary design and outstanding execution. Such successes include both the (not-so-surprising) Eiffel Tower itself, and the (perhaps-a-little-surprising) structure inside the Statue of Liberty. The building of the Eiffel Tower, for example, was an extremely dangerous proposition for the approximately 300 workers who joined in; but thanks to Eiffel’s safety precautions, only 1 worker didn’t survive the 2-year building endeavour.

Clearly, Gustave Eiffel was a great visionary and strategist, able to surround himself with outstanding “builders”. The result: creative design that stood out for their times and for ours, historical monuments with deep cultural meaning and structure to outlast time and the elements.

In a less than shining moment, however, this unparalleled (for his time) strategist, visionary and builder, ended his career due – in large part – to poor execution. In 1887, Eiffel agreed to build the Panama Canal locks. Poor planning and execution – not just of the building, but of the entire project management – landed Eiffel in court, in prison and then released. His reputation damaged so badly, Eiffel ended his engineering work, and we will never know what could have been.

This was the biggest contract in his entire career in business, and also the one with the greatest risk. Given the risk he faced, he was granted major financial advantages and solid guarantees, which allowed him to collect his profit as soon as the work was begun. Despite the care which Eiffel took in the project, the liquidation of the canal construction company, Compagnie du Canal, on February 4 1889, led to his own indictment for fraud alongside De Lesseps and his son, and to a sentence of two years in prison and a fine of 2000 francs, even though nothing could really be blamed on him personally. With his honour and dignity severely compromised, he withdrew from business. The ruling was later to be annulled by the highest appeal court, the Cour de Cassation, liberating him of all obligations concerning the accusations, which put an end to any further court action against him.

There is no doubt here that great strategy dies with poor execution

Stay tuned… Part II will explore how bad strategy cannot live with great execution; nor can great execution deliver strategy where there was none.

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade!