Why business strategy efforts tend to fail
Strategy fails because it deceptively difficult to get right.
In the business universe there is one vital area that is universally plagued by misunderstanding and failure - that area is STRATEGY.
As an old colleague remarked to me not too long ago, when he reflected on the success of the strategy efforts at the very well-known company that he used to work for;
"Strategy at our company became something of a punchline. We all knew that we'd spend 9 months putting together an impressive looking strategy document and then 3 months f*cking it up."
When it comes to strategy and its effective implementation - this kind of negative sentiment is the norm.
Why is this? Why is getting strategy right so difficult?
The answer is that there isn't just one, neat reason for the failure. There are a lot of potential issues that you can point to and in dynamic combination with each other you get varying degrees of disappointment when exploring the topic.
Just one of those weak points worth highlighting is a general misunderstanding of the process itself.
As Freek Vermeulen points out in his piece for the Harvard Business Review in 2017 - the major misunderstanding that a lot of company executives have is that they confuse strategy for documenting a wish list of goals rather than seeing it as the vital and informed choices about the future that a company needs to make in order to achieve a preferable outcome.
An impressive PowerPoint slide deck with a slide that state: “We want to be the number one or number two in all the markets in which we operate” is NOT a strategy - that's an outcome that is achieved thanks to the successful implementation of a project (or series of projects) that were chosen from a list of possible projects.
Obviously simply stating a goal doesn't automatically deliver an outcome, but why then is there this confusion?
Perhaps the answer this and other problems lies in the type of thinking that is being applied to the task.
At its core, strategic work requires a perspective that is not focused on simply repeating the same kind of work that is already being done, but better.
Strategy work requires a perspective which is confident enough to look away from the existing business to see things far more holistically.
It's not about fine tuning the details of the existing, it is rather about opening the mind to exploring 'what should be' and 'what could be'.
Strategy is about choices. To see the choices in front of you clearly - a different mindset is required from the one that manages a business effectively.
Successful strategy also depends on your decision-making capability.
If you are great at making informed decisions about the future from the many choices available to you, then you will be great at positioning a company to take advantage of that future.
But here's the challenge - all opportunities lie in the future, and the future is uncertain.
Strategy is the art and science of making good choices using decision-making techniques that rely on non-factual information.
To put it another way it's similar to making a bet on a future outcome, but using an assessment of informed probability rather than hard facts; it's a complex process to deliver on.
Which is precisely why a business wanting to improve the effectiveness of its strategy efforts should hire a trained futurist or foresight practitioner; a professional who knows how to facilitate the process of making great decisions with incomplete information.
Strategy fails because its deceptively difficult to get right.
An awful lot of money gets wasted on workshops and breakaway venues and software and change management programs - when what really needs to happen is that the right facilitator needs to be hired to assist in guiding the whole process.
The investment that you make in hiring the right professional will save a lot of time and money and deliver far better results than trying to get it right alone.