Spotting bad strategy

When it comes to strategy - the quality of the work is all that matters.

For at least the past 8 years we have been almost entirely focused on studying and developing a deeper understanding of business strategy.

Our relentless pursuit of knowledge and wisdom in the domain has meant that along with understanding and practicing the mechanics that make up great strategy, we've also studied countless examples of bad strategy.

Unfortunately bad strategy work is far more prevalent than good strategy work and the acute danger is that there is very little guidance out there on which is which. We just can't begin to explain how often we're personally been proudly presented 'a strategy' by senior executives of well-known organisations that was anything but.

In fact, we can easily trawl the published presentations of listed South African companies that are seemingly offering their shareholders and financial analysts a snapshot of their strategy that is nothing more than a horseshit wish list of goals that even at a casual glance is not worth the time that was taken to present such nonsense.

So then - what are the hallmarks of bad strategy? How might we easily spot it and call it out?

  1. Fluffy words: Strategy is not something that should be used to pump up the ego of a business. Bullshit sayings (mission, vision and purpose statements) that actually say nothing are an easy indicator that an ad agency was tasked to write these statements - not somebody who understand the power of these tools when properly crafted. Spotting fluff is easy. Anything that cannot be tested through intentional falsification is a dead giveaway.
  2. Avoiding the problem: Strategy that doesn't careful articulate the problem that it is attempting to solve, or the identified future-orientated opportunity that it is trying to unlock is bad strategy. Strategy is a tool. The tool needs to be designed to deliver something of worth by overcoming a critical barrier / obstacle.
  3. Lack of focus and coherence: The value of good strategy is in the intense focusing of effort and resources on a critical leverage point that will result in cascading benefits should that keystone issue be resolved. Bad strategy is not focused or coherent - it's all over the show.
  4. No critical thinking: Strategy is an art and a science. This means that strategy cannot be the opinion of one person; it needs to be designed and constructed using sound research and critical thinking. Multiply perspectives are required to inform strategy because you are making a judgment in the realm of significant uncertainty. Bad strategy that lacks the rigour of critical thinking looks a lot like planning; and planning and the future are not good friends.
  5. Blandness: Without action. strategy is useless. Strategy itself then needs to be designed and packaged to motivate people into action. Most strategy is blander than an unseasoned bowl of rice and because of this its a waste of time. Strategy communication is an almost entirely misunderstood part of the successful process of delivering outperformance. If it doesn't fire up an organisation into frantic action, then it's shit.

Getting strategy right is worth an untold amount for any organisation, but most efforts are dismal. That's because strategy work itself is deceptively difficult. Uncovering the real problem that needs to be solved and identifying the barriers that need to be overcome to resolve it is a long process that require an immense amount of exploration and self-reflection. Not many organisations are truly prepared to undertake this hard work so they accept substandard strategy and pretend that they've ticked the box.

But if nothing changes, nothing changes. When it comes to strategy, quality of the work it critical.

Don't stop until you've achieved high-quality.

Don't settle for planning.

Don't settle for wishy-washy.

Don't settle for confusion.

Don't settle for ambiguity .

Don't settle until you have a good approach for how you are going to win.


Kodak is not a good example of bad strategy
The outcome of bad strategy is not necessarily bankruptcy.