A crumpled up ball of paper
Photo by Thomas Stephan on Unsplash

Share Article:

Just execute8 min read

How often have you heard someone say, “I know exactly what to do; I just need to execute?” This comes up a lot both in organizations and with individuals. The problem is that the distinction between planning and doing is a lot murkier than we recognize, and creating this false dichotomy ignores the reality of what it means to get complex work done.

I am not sure where this idea got started. The strategist JP Castlin claims it entered the workplace with Charles Taylor’s “scientific management.” 1 I assumed it started with Cartesian dualism. But Tim Ingold has said,

It goes back to Aristotle.To create any thing, Aristotle reasoned, you have to bring together form (morphe) and matter (hyle). In the subsequent history of Western thought, this hylomorphic model of creation became ever more deeply embedded. But it also became increasingly unbalanced. Form came to be seen as imposed by an agent with a particular design in mind, while matter, thus rendered passive and inert, became that which was imposed upon. 2

Whether the idea is 100, 400, or 2000 years old, this belief still seems to be strong.

Most execution is more than following a plan by the letter, it is trying to achieve a goal and making choices.

How we choose depends on what we believe is possible. What we believe is possible is not fixed, but expands and grows around us. If economics is the science of choice, then economics is the science of what is possible at the individual and system level. Our choices themselves can change what is possible.3

The implications of this are severe. We can’t know all of our options in advance as some possibilities only emerge through our work. If we truly had a specific plan that we tried to stick to, we would limit what is possible.

Tim Ingold takes this even further:

Form, to recall Klee’s words, is death; form-giving is life. I want to argue that what Klee said of art is true of skilled practice in general, namely that it is a question not of imposing preconceived forms on inert matter but of intervening in the fields of force and currents of material wherein forms are generated. 4

The very act of creation is an act of form-giving and this can only happen through doing and is not just a product of our initial idea or plan.

To break this thinking-doing dichotomy, it is important to recognize that the mind is not the same as the brain. The 4E model is a helpful way to shift how we think about the mind.

  • The mind is Embodied: the mind is in the brain and the body, and what the mind sees as possible in the world is very much related to what affordances are available. “The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill…they have to be measured relative to the animal.”5
  • The mind is Extended. It exists in the tools we use. People use expressions like this notebook (or phone or to-do app) is my brain, and in a way, it is. We have outsourced our minds to the tools we use.
  • The mind is Embedded in our context and our environment, and these shape how we think.
  • The mind is Enacted. We see the world, not from a 3rd person perspective, but by walking through it, our actions in the world create our view.

    we perceive the environment not from a stationary point, nor from a succession of such points, but in the course of our movement along what Gibson calls ‘a path of observation’ 6

Let’s use this post as an example.

I recently read Innovating Emergent Futures by Iain Kerr and Jason Frasca. In it, they strongly critique that “ideation cannot directly lead to novelty.” (It also provided a great reminder of the 4E model of mind shared above). This caused me to form a connection to Execution Trap by Roger Martin, which I had read years ago, and it has stuck with me ever since that a strategy can’t be brilliant if it can’t be executed. From there, I went down many pathways thinking about the Enacted and Embodied Mind as presented in The Embodied Mind by Thompson, Varela, and Rosch, which also connected to my Buddhist training on the concepts of emptiness as it relates to the mind.

At this point, there was a sense of something I could write, and I started putting ideas down related to strategy and innovations, but it felt like things that others had already written about. But as I wrote, new ideas came, and more notes poured out.

I had begun planning the writing, but the planning was, in fact, writing. Some of the notes will make it into the final piece some will not.

It was with that in progress that I saw some tweets that caught my attention, and I saw a friend’s tweet that she needs to execute, and like that, another piece fell into place.

The points I wanted to make were not pre-formed before I started. Even the notion of starting is a bit vague. What was the genesis moment? I knew wanted to challenge the planning/doing dichotomy, but the content emerged as I was writing and thinking. And it continued to change as I read more while writing.

I would argue many things are like this. As an engineer, when I faced a hard challenge, I would start coding. I would figure it out by doing, not by writing a detailed specification (that would come later). As I gained more experience, I could do more of the prototyping in my head, but I would argue it was less a detailed plan and more the process of walking the path mentally rather than physically. If I think about where I struggled the most in my career, it is when I am over-thinking and under-doing.

One act of creation leads to another. Our environment “lights up with opportunities” as we traverse it.7

If we can’t plan completely in advance, we must plan as part of the doing.

This isn’t to claim that there aren’t times when we can know in advance what we need to do. When tasks are simple, and there is one clear way to do them, or if they are complicated and we are an expert, we may be able to establish solid and detailed plans. However, most of the time, in knowledge work and when dealing with people, things are complex. In these situations, context matters a lot and is constantly shifting. The paradigm of splitting the work into and executing will hurt our ability to make progress.

Does this mean we should never plan when things are complex? No, but it does mean that we should think about planning differently. We should know directionally where we are headed and allow for execution to be part of the refinement of the plan.

Rules of thumb

  1. When things are complex, knowing if the plan will work is impossible. It is better to know set the direction of travel than a detailed plan.
  2. The plan will evolve and emerge from execution. The execution informs the planning and vice-versa. The plan is to adapt as you go.
  3. Work is not connecting dots but drawing lines. The dots are constraints that may or may not serve the line. Milestones can be helpful to see progress but should not be taken as concrete dots to connect. 8

Warning signs that you have too strong of a distinction between planning and execution:

  1. You are putting off execution. “I know what I do; I just can’t get myself to do it.” You don’t have a plan that accounts for that issue, you can only have a working plan through execution.
  2. You are “executing” but not making progress. The issue is usually that the plan did not consider your capacity for execution, and only by execution can the plan be reformed.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Is seeing the plan as separate from execution serving me?
  • What would happen if the plan emerged from doing?
  • What parts of the plan are getting in the way of doing?


  1. https://strategyinpraxis.substack.com/p/theories-and-practice
  2. Ingold, Tim, The Textility of Making (January 2010). Cambridge Journal of Economics, Vol. 34, Issue 1, pp. 91-102, 2010, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1540398 or http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/cje/bep042
  3. Devereaux, Abigail and Koppl, Roger and Kauffman, Stuart, Creative Evolution in Economics (January 13, 2023). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4324130 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4324130
  4. Ingold, Tim, The Textility of Making (January 2010). Cambridge Journal of Economics, Vol. 34, Issue 1, pp. 91-102, 2010, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1540398 or http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/cje/bep042
  5. Gibson, J. J. (1979). The ecological approach to visual perception. Houghton, Mifflin and Company.
  6. Ingold, T. (2007). Lines: A Brief History (1st ed.). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203961155
  7. Felin, T., & Koenderink, J. (2022). A Generative View of Rationality and Growing Awareness. Frontiers in Psychology, 13, 807261. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2022.807261
  8. Ingold, T. (2007). Lines: A Brief History (1st ed.). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203961155

Sign up to get site updates

formerly Keith Corbin Coaching

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website.