Strategy is one of those alters of organisation to which almost everyone offers lip service, and once a year in the planning cycle, receives mass genuflection. That does not mean we believe, just that it is a part of the duty of organisations, and as such, fails to deliver to its potential.
Over the years as a corporate employee and consultant, I have seen strategy implementations fail, sometimes with spectacular results. Usually however, strategy just whimpers in the corner, ignored and derided, but every now and again, I have been privileged to see, and be a part of successful strategic exercises. Below is a list of the most frequent sources of the failures I have seen, the good part of such a list is that taking the opposite gives you a list of what you need to do to succeed.
- Failing to understand that reality is not always what people tell themselves, self talk is too often tangled up with self delusion and adherence to the status quo. Recognising the hard realities as they actually are rather than the way you would like them to be is a remarkably common delusion.
- Believing self serving optimism and hubris are substitutes for achievable goals. It is OK, indeed admirable to work towards the BHAG, but allowing ego, management power based on the position rather than the person, and “group-think” into the room , and it becomes a different beast.
- Not seeing “Capability inflation” for the damming flaw that it is. Virtually everyone sees themselves as better than average at whatever it is they are doing, which simply does not work. Capability like everything else in life is spread across some sort of “normal” curve, in which the only thing that really changes is the height of the average, in relation to the spread of scores.
- Not recognising that competitors do not always react in an orderly and predictable manner, they are not a party too your strategies, and rarely react in wholly predictable ways.
- The factors often seen as “differentiators” are very often just the table stakes to be in the game. Asking management what are the “differentiators”, what characteristics makes any enterprise different, or its products different, and you usually get back a list of things that are just a cost of doing business, just like a watch has to tell accurate time before it is a watch.
- Failure to recognise and adjust for unintended consequences quickly. Usually this occurs because it is not in the plan, and plans are after all prepared by the bosses, performance measures are tied to the plan, and it is a great adornment on the shelf. (my time contracting to the Public Sector sees this blatant ignoring of unintended consequences justified by all sorts of complicated and cliché ridden language developed as an art form)
- Failure to believe. For a senior management to formulate spruik, and go through the motions of articulating and implementing a strategy, then not “living” it themselves means the strategy is doomed to failure. People watch what you do far more than they listen to what you say. Saying you believe is not enough.
- Underestimating the importance of “people“, their attitudes, fears, relationships, egos, and behavioural norms.
- Failing to recognise the elasticity of the status quo. Its durability in the face of logic, common sense and the blinding obvious (to outsiders) is just remarkable.
- Failing to understand and manage the essential paradox of “predictable” and “Innovation” . Customers like predictability, they come to rely in it, but they also expect their suppliers to be at the “cutting edge” to be finding innovative solutions to their problems, and the jobs to be done by their products. Nobody has managed this paradox as well as Apple over the last 20 years. Their products are all predictable easy to use, look great, and perform beautifully, yet they are always at the cutting edge, innovating with everything they do.
- Failing to recognise the sources and likelihood of disruption, and preparing as if it was about to happen. The commercial technical and competitive environment in which a strategy has to succeed is increasingly being disrupted in very hard to predict ways. Strategy is about the basic choices that make up the business model, and those are no longer models that are predictable across decades, they are evolving almost daily. A quick look through Jerry Owyangs presentations, writings and data bases outlining the collaborative economy is all the evidence of the shifts happens that are needed, but just think a few words: Air BnB, Uber, Amazon, iTunes.
- Failing to understand that loyalty cannot be built by money, and material benefits, loyalty is to people, and is very local. it must be earned by displaying and genuinely feeling respect, awareness and interest in individuals. Dunbar’s number plays a huge, largely unrecognised role in organisations. 150 people is about the maximum we can have relationships with on a face to face basis, and the smaller the group, the more intense the potential of the relationships that exist. In this context, loyalty is local, people relate to, work with, and support those who are a part of their local “tribe” against all those outside their tribes. This can often mean other divisions from the same business, or even the other function living down the hall. Believing this local loyalty can be leveraged or changed without real hard work is a common trap for strategists, particularly those entering a strategy that calls for organisation al change, renewal, and in the case of M&A activity.
- Failing to understand that data is inherently ambiguous, and swings between being of some value and intensely dangerous. It all depends on the assumptions that drive the analysis, wrong assumptions render the analysis at best misleading. Is that upswing in sales due to the insightful marketing campaign, or the failure of a competitor to deliver due to problems in the factory? Bet I know most marketing people will say.
- Thinking Strategy and culture are one and the same thing, with perhaps just a few nuances for each. Whilst they must be considered together, they must be managed as separate but mutually reinforcing entities, A degree of inconsistency here will see a strategy fail, as culture is always stronger. Attempts to change culture to align with strategy, rather than recognising the the power and reliance of culture, are doomed to failure, it is simply too elastic to be easily changed. There are really only two ways to change culture. The first is bit by bit, with a leader who demonstrates the behavior required, and is unprepared to accept compromises. The second is to fire almost everybody, if not everybody, and start again.
- Failure to recognise any of the above for what it really is, and calling it something politically more acceptable, thus ignoring the failure, and worse, taking no steps to correct the sources of that failure.
I would be interested in other sources of strategic failure you have witnessed, or been a part of, I am sure there are many I have missed.