Strategies fail more often than they succeed. Occasionally it’s because they are stupid strategies. Most of the times the cause is a lack of clarity – a lack of specificity about where you are headed, how you will get there, and what must change. Consider these examples of typical failures:
1. The leader can’t really see the difference between the new vision and the previous trajectory
When I lead board and staff members in strategic planning, I shift their thinking about their organization and their options. You can see the ah-ha moment on their faces when the power of a new vision and strategy becomes clear. Unfortunately, the CEO is sometimes the one person who fails to experience that ah-ha. It could be defensiveness or maybe he has convinced himself that phenomenal success has been just around the corner for so long now that any new idea is simply an extension of his current trajectory. Maybe it is a little of each. Either way, if you can’t see clearly how your new strategy differs from your current path, you are destined for incremental improvement at best. You will never become a significantly different organization capable of far greater accomplishments.
2. Insufficient buy-in from the staff and board
One of the first questions I like to ask staff and board before working with them to develop a new strategy is to tell me about their current strategy and priorities. Their comments are incredibly important and revealing, though they often tell a similar tale. This is where I find out how little agreement their has been about the direction and priorities. It is also where I find out who was never on board after the last round of strategic planning. A strategy can’t succeed if your critical players believe it is doomed to fail or that their ideas are better. You need clear buy-in. You must uncover and resolve those doubts, concerns, and disagreements.
3. Too many priorities
My strategic planning surveys also reveal insufficient focus with epidemic frequency. A good strategy creates a clear focus. You know you’ve achieved that clarity when employees have the confidence to set things aside and say ‘no’ to everything from customer orders to the boss’ orders. A clear strategy tells employees what they should stop doing in addition to what they should start or continue doing.
4. Inadequate attention to the outside world
Thanks in part to the popular tool called SWOT — strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats–strategic planning is often bogged down in details that ignore industry trends and frequently fails to shift anyone’s paradigm. Strengths and weaknesses are obviously internally focused. Examining threats is playing defense, which is never the way to win. And opportunities, especially when surrounded by these other boxes, tends to focus attention on well-known opportunities involving existing customers and extensions to existing products, assuming there is any outward focus at all. You need to entertain much more fundamental questions about value, markets, and trends if you really want to open your eyes to ideas that are clearly new and promising.
5. Inability to get above the daily grind
The daily grind can be a powerful inhibitor of strategic thinking. When the pressure and fear are almost overwhelming, strategic planning participants, especially those who are less strategic to start with, tend to respond to almost every idea with “yes, but …” They simply can’t envision possibilities without also seeing crippling constraints: shrunken budgets, deferred maintenance, and staffing shortages, to name a few. A critical distinction that I often have to make over and over is to separate strategy from implementation. Once you are clear about the difference and realize that most of the constraints that strangle your best thinking are related to implementation, it becomes easier to set these aside in order to see bigger possibilities.
6. Decision makers who aren’t strategic
Ocassionally I encounter a strategic planning group comprised of zero strategic thinkers. They are cautious, concrete, linear, and officious. These are the people who are more concerned about defining stringent screening criteria and processes for selecting a consultant than in the ability of the consultant to shake them up and get results. They rarely produce a clear or compelling strategy. More of the same with shiny new labels and a lot of pomp and circumstance is a far more likely outcome. A client told me recently that they selected me out of several obviously capable consultants because I seemed the one most likely to make them uncomfortable. That’s the sign of a group ready to see differently, think strategically, and seriously consider significant change.
7. Operational issues take precedence
Too often I encounter organizations with a ‘strategy’ that is nothing more than a program of operational improvements. The senior team convenes for annual ‘strategic planning’ and then plans for internal improvements without ever thinking strategically. These organizations need to learn the difference between strategy and planning. They survive thanks to luck. When the luck fails, so do they.
8. Implementation is usually the hardest part
Strategies don’t just happen. You don’t penetrate new markets or enhance production capabilities with wishful thinking. Every strategy must be translated into responsibilities and a series of actions with the involvement of those people responsible for implementation. Authority and resources must accompany those responsibilities and qualified individuals must assume those responsibilities. I’ve seen too many leaders essentially toss the strategic decree over the wall, cover their eyes and ears, and grit their teeth while they hope the magic happens. Of course I’ve seen the flip side as well: the leaders who try to orchestrate everything from the top because they don’t trust their people or don’t have people to trust and lack the courage to fix that problem.
9. Failing to build an organization capable of delivering
Many organizations are simply incapable of delivering on a new strategy. This is especially true if that strategy is at all ambitious. The CEO may not be strong enough to step up to a new game. The sales team may not be able to embrace a new value proposition. The operations manager may have been fine running a sleepy shop, but might not have a clue how to deliver precision results at high volumes. Any number of employees may not be ready for significant changes in technology. Production facilities may require dramatic overhauling. Leaders who fail to rectify the short-comings of their current capabilities will fail to implement their strategy. I’ve seen this happen time and again, especially when key players, including CEOs, aren’t replaced promptly.
Strategies succeed when strategic thinkers establish a clear, focused, and compelling picture of how they will play the game of business. Leaders need to know, with specificity, where they are headed, what kind of organization they need to become, and how they will get there. Specificity is key. Without specificity, you’ll just have a lot of interesting conversations and no alignment behind real change.
This article first appeared on Forbes, July 10th, 2017.