The Art of Managing series is dedicated to exploring the critical issues we face in guiding our firms and teams to success in today’s volatile world.
Strategy processes mostly disappoint. That’s too bad, because there are few activities more essential to an organization’s success and security than getting strategy right.
The output of too many strategy processes ends up as simply the corporate messaging of a firm’s senior managers, with little impact on operations, investments or structure. And sadly, the reasons that strategy efforts fail to deliver value are easy to observe and relatively speaking, fairly easy to avoid with good leadership and effective managerial discipline.
For the purposes of this post, I’ll focus on some common reasons strategy programs break bad. In part 2, we’ll explore the important, “What to do about it” ideas.
At Least 17 Ways Your Strategy Process Will Fail:
1-No shared view of what strategy really is. Few executives (few people) immediately agree on a common definition of strategy. To some, strategy is a refined version of the operating plan. To others, it’s a moonshot. And for still others, it’s the creation of something that never existed. Most processes fail from the word “strategy” simply because there’s no agreement on what the heck it is and what it is supposed to look like.
2-Confusion over who owns strategy. Is it marketing? Is it the CEO? Is it the executive team? No one knows and everyone ends up waiting and pointing.
3-Everyone is at cross-purposes over the vocabulary and key concepts. Much like the many meanings people ascribe to the term “strategy,” the other terms confuse and confound as well. The concepts of mission, vision, value proposition, competitive advantage and the many other terms that swirl around the discipline of strategy mean different things to different people.
4. Management teams fail to function like teams. Most management teams resemble this remark. They’re groups filled with smart people…functional experts with little context for why they need to operate as a team. In fact, most don’t. The work of strategy is a team sport.
5-Strategy is treated like an event, not a continuous process. Too many firms relegate the critical dialog about future directions and opportunities to one or two offsite events every year. It’s a constant dialog, not a one or two-shot activity.
6-Power, politics and the status quo all get in the way. Most executives and senior managers intuitively know that a new strategy begets change…and change threatens structure and resources. There’s a natural gravitational pull of the status quo to preserve power and control over budgets and resources that precludes open, objective consideration of new paths.
7-Expecting template tools to spit out remarkable solutions. There are all manner of methodologies and processes and templates and frameworks, each professing to offer the path to enlightenment. They’re tools…not magic answer generating machines and they often need to be adapted and mixed and matched. Consultants and facilitators exacerbate this situation by drawing upon the template style they know and not picking and choosing or creating the right tools for the unique situation.
8-Trying to play a long-game on strategic planning in a world that requires sprints, learning and adaptation.
9-Looking to strategy to generate the budget. It’s dangerous to blend the two activities and too many teams fall into this trap.
10-Creeping incrementalism. The work of strategy becomes a simple extension of the current operating plan. Anything outside the status quo is rejected.
11-Maddening myopia. The input and views on the broader world are limited to what the team can see from their conference room window.
12-No one’s involved. The work is held hostage by a few “enlightened” souls.
13-Everyone’s involved. Everyone has an opinion but no one knows how to parse the opinions. The team appears to have no boundaries. It’s everywhere and every one and nowhere and no one all at the same time.
14-The Cowardly Lion rules the day. There’s a courage deficit that reduces well-developed and new ideas to under-funded sidebar initiatives that are often slowly starved to keep supporting the bloated list of initiatives vying for resources with the current state business.
15-Confusing past success and good luck with strategy. The mistaken belief that good results thus far mean we must have a strategy that works often results in a stubborn denial of the need to change in spite of ample evidence to the contrary.
16-A failure to launch. Often, good ideas fall by the wayside due to poor or non-existent execution programs. It’s just assumed that the new strategy work will be adopted in the daily routines of people across functions.
17-Ocean boiling and process fatigue. When the process reads like a late career Michener novel that focuses on Colorado but starts at the formation of the earth and proceeds very, very slowly from there, people give up. (OK, I loved Michener, but his later works required ample patience.) These processes easily become all-consuming and the business of running the business becomes secondary.
The Bottom-Line for Now:
While the work of assessing opportunities, choosing directions and choosing what not to do is rarely ever easy, too many firms and management teams are shooting themselves in both feet with the above mistakes. The challenge is how to avoid these traps and pitfalls and find a way forward into the murky fog of the future and to come out of the process with something worth doing. I’ll turn this discussion positive in my next post on the topic.
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