4 min read

Why Strategy Fails (and what to do differently)

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Many of us have the wrong idea about strategy. We think it's about workshops and documents, and then struggle to understand why everyone's still doing what they've always done.

Much of this stems from a confusion about what strategy really is - spoiler alert: it isn't a document. Strategy is all about how we make decisions, and whether those decisions point in the same direction.

What strategy is

Strategy, at its heart, is a set of principles that, when we communicate them and see them adopted, generate a pattern of decision-making and resource allocation that shifts us closer to our goals.

When it's clear, and the right building blocks are in place, it tells us how we're going to prioritise our effort and channel our energy to get to where we need to go. A cascading series of choices form, starting with the why, and ending with the what, supporting a system that all point toward the same intended outcomes.

CLARITY (1)

What strategy is not

Strategy is not a document. It's not a constraint to progress or flexibility, a list of actions or projects, a bullshit report generator, or a management tool.

Strategy is about defining:

  • Direction (Where we're heading)
  • Difference (What we do, and don't do)
  • Decision criteria - (How to use the above to make choices)

How strategy becomes reality

Good strategy is executed through a coordinated system of reinforcing activities, led by committed people who understand the big picture. 

Once we know where we're going, and how we're going to get there, we examine all of the things we're doing, and not doing, and think about what needs to change.

Most failed strategies are either:

  • A failure to choose - We talk about what we want to do or change, but are too afraid to stop doing the other things in case our goals aren't possible. We prop up a parallel system, keeping our existing work alive, just in case we're wrong, or not good enough. This creates confusion amongst our teams and customers and keeps us too busy to make progress on the new, practically guaranteeing our worst fears: that we can't change for the better.
  • A failure to align - We ask things of people that aren't possible, by building and maintaining complicated risk-based systems and processes that get in the way. Collaboration, change and innovation are stifled by bureaucracy and broken systems as we spend too much energy controlling for what we don't want to make any progress on what we do want.
  • A failure to communicate - We spend hours or days around a whiteboard getting our thoughts in a knot, and walk out of the room with 6 different versions of where we're going and why. We create corporate collateral that further obfuscates our ideas and send conflicting messages to staff daily by asking them to do things that bear no resemblance to our most important goals.
  • A failure to embed - Before our strategy has a chance to bed in, we get nervous and start dismantling and tweaking. Mistrust in our abilities, stemming from ourselves or our decision-makers, creates a culture of nervousness and constant change, leaving us frazzled and torn in multiple directions, always second-guessing what the next big thing will be.

Many failures are a combination of the above factors, tied together by an overall unwillingness to commit for long enough to see results. Genuine strategic positions are a 10+ year game, and building the system to make them possible take time and effort. Changing a strategy document isn't hard, but realigning a complex web of organisational activities to generate results is much harder. 

Changing the kind of work we do, how we do it, and executing the necessary transitions in systems, capabilities and resources is hard work, and it doesn't happen quickly. Building a distinct niche in the market, hiring and training the right people, building core capabilities and bringing that clarity into all of our marketing, communication and positioning doesn't happen overnight.

When we try to change our strategy every few months, we wind up with a tangled mess of busy people and important work that makes sense on the operational level, but lack any coherence or alignment to a bigger picture.

The result is nothing but waste: wasted money, wasted effort and wasted relationships.

How to succeed

When reflecting on the success or failure of your current strategy, consider the following three key elements:

CLARITYClarity

  • Is it abundantly clear where you're going, why you're going there, and how you'll get there?
  • Have you thought about all of your options, and explained why you're not pursuing alternatives?
  • Does your collateral and leadership communication make the above obvious?
  • Have you considered key questions about your strategy, and what your responses will be?

Coherence

  • What will you need to do more of, to make your strategy a reality?
  • What will you need to do less of, or do differently?
  • Do people understand how they should be using your principles in their daily work?
  • What are you currently doing that makes these goals difficult to achieve?
  • What internal systems should be adjusted to change this?
  • Have you considered all of your operational activities and how they fit together?
  • What funding, resources and capability will be required to achieve your goals?

Commitment

  • Are all of your leaders on board with the intended direction?
  • Have you thought about when it might be difficult to to defend or stick to your strategy, and how you will manage that?
  • What is your plan for communicating the new direction at the appropriate level to key staff?
  • What are the key programmes and workstreams you will need to get behind for your strategy to take flight?

Ultimately, a strategic leaders core job is to develop, disseminate, direct and defend strategy. Unless you know what it is, why it matters, and how you're going to keep it moving, you'll never achieve your strategic goals.

Make it simple

When in doubt, stop tweaking. Spend more energy on clarifying what you're already trying to do and aligning your work to that, rather than dreaming up flash new objectives or trendy new infographics. .

You probably already know what needs to happen, you're just afraid to put a stake in the ground and risk failing. (Which, if you don't change, will happen anyway.)

Here's five key things to do now, to increase your odds of success

  1. Eliminate the programmes of work that you've put lots of energy into but are completely tangential to your most important goals.

  2. Dismantle your complex, risk-averse procurement, performance and evaluation frameworks and redesign for simplicity.

  3. Have open conversations about what needs to shift, with your leadership team, and your staff.

  4. Challenge each piece of busywork and ask if it really needs to happen, or if it can be made easier.

  5. Draw a one-page diagram of what your organisation would look like if you were starting from scratch, with only your big goals to guide you and can everything else that gets in the way.

Be bold, keep it simple, and stay the course. You've got this.