Seven reasons strategy fails
In essence strategy is very simple. You set clear goals, identify the problems you’ll need to overcome to achieve them, diagnose the root cause of those problems, design solutions, and implement them. Check the results, learn from what you did, recalibrate actions, repeat.
However, many organisations find putting this process into action to be a challenge. Like many things strategy is deceptively simple, and a wide range of factors can derail teams from making progress.
Here are some of the most common pitfalls I regularly see companies struggle with.
they ignore context
No organisation exists in a vacuum. We are all affected by trends and pressures from outside, be they economic, regulatory, demographic, technological, from changing customer needs or the actions of our competitors. We must also recognise what we don’t know - the uncertainties whose outcomes we await.
Whilst our aims and priorities are self-generated, we must be aware of the external pressures that our business faces, and react if, and as, necessary.
they set a fixed, slow rhythm for goals and learning
The standard approach to strategy and goals revolves around an annual cycle in many organisations. This is just too slow. In a time of constant change annual plans and budgets are an arbitrary structure at best, and downright damaging at worst.
Using a quarterly cycle - like Google’s OKR process - to set more immediate goals that take you towards your overarching aim, and tracking actions and outcomes over that time period, can build momentum and increase opportunities for learning and recalibration.
The more you learn about what works, and the quicker, the better.
they neglect the how
The most exciting part of designing a strategy is often the early stages - the big picture, horizon scanning, ambitious goal-setting bit. The paradox of successful strategy is that this creativity must be balanced with rigour.
Every strategy will stand or fall based on your ability to translate vision into everyday action across your organisation.
Winning strategies directly link your big goals to what your team does everyday. There is thread of logic that runs from vision to action - a coherence - that brings alignment, common understanding and clarity.
Establishing how your organisation gets things done, and putting in place the processes and governance to make sure it happens is not the sexy part of strategy, but it is often the difference between success and failure.
they avoid the hard decisions
As Michael Porter famously said “the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do”. The great Napoleon Bonaparte is quoted as saying “nothing is more difficult, and therefore more precious, than to be able to decide.”
Let’s face it, making tough choices is hard. Really hard. However without those choices being made progress won’t happen. Your team will be confused about priorities. Resources won’t get to the right place at the right time. Stakeholders won’t understand what you’re really trying to achieve.
The riskiest time for hedging your bets and ducking the hard choices is whilst moving from vision and big goals into the detail of action planning. It’s easy to start adding extra goals and making decisions that dilute and distract from the big win. It’s also easy to find a reason to do anything, but successful companies find reasons not to do things. They simplify their business, focus their efforts, and don’t allow distractions or side-shows to stop them pursuing their most important aims.
they don’t face facts
Big audacious goals are great. Every organisation should think big about what it can achieve, and how it can best serve its customers and community.
However, brutal honesty about your strengths and weaknesses and the constraints you face is crucial. Not so you have an excuse why you can’t hit those lofty goals, but so you can get creative about overcoming them.
An organisation that builds its strategy around capabilities it doesn’t have, or that requires resources it can’t access, or assets it can’t develop, will struggle without a clear plan to overcome these challenges. Likewise if unavoidable changes in your environment that will affect how you operate are coming, don’t ignore them.
Face facts, and deal with them directly.
Look objectively at your resources, capabilities, capacities and assets in light of what you want to achieve. Be realistic about what you can do now, then use a “we can if” approach to get over an initial “we can’t because” response.
Constraints are real, but rarely permanent. Factor them into short-term objectives if you must, but don’t let them get in the way of your big goals.
they keep goals fuzzy and vague
When it comes to inspiring people, or telling the story of why your organisation exists and what you want to achieve, fuzzy goals are great. Strong marketing copy and compelling storytelling can raise your profile and bring attention to your mission.
You need more than this to get things done however.
Not moving beyond vague goals can make those hard decisions more difficult. Committing to tangible outcomes over clear timescales is a key part of leadership and strategy, as it brings clarity to your team, is crucial in building a learning cycle of actions and results, and a culture of accountability.
It can be scary as it exposes you to the prospect of failure, but without it progress and impact is unlikely.
they don’t involve their people enough
In many organisations strategy is something done behind closed doors by the senior team, then unveiled to everyone else and presented as a fait accompli. Unsurprisingly this approach often fails to get buy-in and support, and people feel strategy is something “done to” rather than “done with” them. It remains an abstract process outside their influence.
I believe that bringing your people with you when developing strategy is crucial. Communication, engagement, and the chance for them to contribute their insight and experience can not only increase their support for your strategic direction, but also make your strategy better.
Some of my most rewarding experiences have been seeing insights and comments from people at lower levels of organisational structures change the perception and view of leaders, resulting in new ideas and opportunities emerging.
If you aren’t engaging effectively with your team on strategy, you are missing a huge resource at your fingertips. We need to destroy the myth that leaders have all the answers, and bring humility and open-mindedness to designing better strategy.