The COO and Strategy
What is the role of the COO in setting strategy?
Company strategy is not set by the COO, but rather by the CEO. Important parts of the strategy will also be shaped by the heads of Product, Marketing, and Sales (depending on the company).
Thus, in a sense the COO does not a have a formal role in the setting of strategy. And yet, they are responsible for executing against it. How does this play out in practice?
The Role of the Implementor
I come from a Software Engineering background. Indeed, until relatively recently I was a VP Engineering. The job of Engineering is to implement and maintain a product specification that they are not the primary owners of. And yet, high performance teams know that having engineers involved in Product discovery and design is essential to getting the best outcomes.
Why is this the case? Because the engineers are the ultimate implementors of the solution, and as implementors they have significant amounts of both power and insight.
The power comes from the fact that building a product is ultimately an act of interpretation. The level of detail in a specification or user story can never be equal to the level of nuance that is available in the development environment; consequently the engineer is constantly making micro-decisions and tradeoffs as they build. To do this well they need a deep understanding of and engagement with the underlying user and business problems being solved.
The insight comes from the fact that the engineers know what lies beneath the surface of the software, and the contours of technology more generally. That gives them unique knowledge of where the pitfalls and opportunities lie. For example, they will know instantly given two similar-seeming solutions to a problem, that one of them will be five times cheaper to build than the other in the present codebase.
Efficiency and creativity arise when the implementors play an appropriate role in the shaping of the solution from the very beginning.
The COO as Strategy Implementor
The engineer’s intimate knowledge of the software system gives them a unique vantage point in defining solutions. Similarly, the COO’s intimate knowledge of the organisational system under their custodianship makes it necessary for them to be deeply involved in the strategy formation process.
Like the engineer, the COO has a particular power in interpreting the strategy during the act of execution. The COO’s role requires them to make many small decisions during the course of leading their team to execute on a strategy. Thus, without the sort of intimate knowledge and context that comes from being a part of strategy formation, they are likely to err in many of those decisions and hence perform suboptimally in carrying out the broader company’s wishes with respect to the strategy.
Also like the engineer, the COO knows in some detail what lies beneath the surface of their organisation. Which teams are performing well, and which are struggling. Which organisational capabilities are well developed, and which ones are weak. This knowledge can be used to guide a successful tactical approach to pursuing a given strategy. For example, an organisation with an underdeveloped Brand Marketing capability should not rely on PR as the primary driver of near-term outcomes.
A Delicate Dance
Most everybody likes to cook in the strategy kitchen, and it can get very crowded in there. To avoid the equally undesirable extremes of design by committee or design by CEO fiat, I suggest following some sort of structured process such as the W Framework. Using a structured process allows everybody to provide their input in the right way and at the right time. Everybody can be heard without the process grinding to a halt.
Within the strategy process, it is a good idea for the COO to be involved in all the steps. The COO is not the decision maker at any step of the strategy process; their role is to be an opinionated counsellor, advising other stakeholders of the constraints, headwinds, and synergies in pursuing strategic goals. It is important that ultimately the COO commit to the chosen strategy, as they will be accountable for delivering against large parts of it.
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