Episode 130: Why do strategies fail?

Is there a hole in your strategy?

In Robert Burns’ poem ‘To a Mouse’, written in 1786, he tells, while ploughing a field, a farmer upturned a mouse’s nest. The resulting poem is an apology to the mouse and is the source of the phrase, “the best laid plans of mice and men.” So, next time someone explains the failure of their strategy with the phrase “oh, the best laid plans of mice and men”, feel free to mention the whole Robbie Burn’s poem.

Of course, if it’s your strategy, it would be better if it did not fail. But strategy by its nature is not a ‘perfect science’. There has to be some element of risk and that risk can be the source of failure. While that is true, there are ways of executing your strategy, things we all do every day, that can not only increase that risk but magnify the chances of the failure.

Let us look at 5 of those strategy traps and how we might go about avoiding them.

  1. Not being clear on responsibility

There is an old Abbot and Costello comedy sketch called “Who’s On First.” If you have never seen it, you need to know that it is all about confusion over names. The player’s name on first base is ‘Who’ but Lou Costello mistakenly confuses the name for a question. While the joke was about people’s names, in business we often hear people say, “OK, who’s on first?”

When you hear this, the chances are you are hearing someone say, “I do not know who was meant to have that action.” What you are hearing is one of the easiest pitfalls to avoid in your strategy. That is clarity about roles and actions.  Do not confuse this with the question about who is in charge – that is not the point. The issue here is that a great strategy needs a great plan and a great plan needs actions and owners. Regardless of how good your plan is, it will fail if responsibilities are not clear.

  1. Over-reach

Having a ‘moon-shot’ is a great idea. According to WhatIs.com a moon-shot is an “ambitious, exploratory and ground-breaking project undertaken without any expectation of near-term profitability or benefit and also, perhaps, without a full investigation of potential risks and benefits.” In other words, it is a goal that takes time and stretches the team.

The classic example of this was President Kennedy’s goal of landing a man on the moon and getting him back safely. No one knew how to achieve this goal when the strategy was launched but the learning happened along the way.

The problem of over-reach is not necessarily the goal but the timeline and resources you allocate to that goal. The idea of ‘landing a man on the moon’ within a decade with enough resource is a great and exciting goal. The plan to ‘landing a man on the moon’ within a year without enough budget and resource is an over-reach.  When you build your plan, avoid the over-reach if you want to land your man on the moon. In addition, a strategy that requires you to change what you don’t control is also an over-reach too. Make sure you control what you want to change.

  1. Poor intelligence

Here we are not talking about a lack of intelligence in the members or leaders of the team. This is not a case of ‘people being stupid’ – which by the way they typically never are. What we are discussing here is the reasons why someone would say, “if I knew then what I know now, I would never have started.”

That does not imply you should have known what Donald Rumsfeld called the ‘known knowns.’ You clearly cannot know what is not to be known. The trick here is to make sure you have done enough work to make sure you know what could have been known. Deploying the right primary and secondary research plans before you invest too much in your strategy is a vital step. You can’t always know everything, and trying to learn everything is a mistake, but a lack of enough good information is often the cause of strategy failure.

  1. Bad communication

Mike Tyson famously said “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” The idea here is that we all have to make sure our plans are adaptive. We know that things are going to happen to throw us off course and re-centering ourselves is critical. My guess, is that in your plans, you allow for this and even dedicate time to assess if this is happening. The reason for strategy failure here is not the lack of adaptability, it’s the failure to communicate the changes it requires.

Good leaders often ‘over-communicate’ to their team members – whether this is good news or bad news. Whether it is a change to the plan or just the news that you are making your goals. It is vital that everyone on the team has the same sense of where you are and what is being achieved. Knowing you are on course is as important as knowing you are about to miss.

  1. Un-stop-ability

In the 1994 movie Forrest Gump, Forrest runs into dog droppings and a man in the bumper sticker business brings it up. Forrest says “It happens,” to which the man asks “What, shit?” and Forrest answers “Sometimes.” [1]

We know and accept that not all strategies work regardless of how well you plan and execute. You may have had the most brilliant of ideas and yet you fail. Sometimes you just have to accept that you are going to fail and that you need to stop what you are doing. As the old Will Rogers saying goes, “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”

Yet for some people, it can be very hard to call a halt to their project. Whether it is a perceived embarrassment or just a fear of the implications of the failure, they keep going hoping something else will happen. Hope as we know is not a strategy.

Good leaders know when a strategy has had its time and call a halt when see it. They do not blame others for this happening. Ending a failing strategy is a brave thing to do and accepting the accountability for it is the right thing to do. Of course you might be in an organization that punishes you for this but if you are, that says more about the organization than you.

Bottom line

We have all been involved in creating or at least being part of great strategies. The desire to do something and do something different is what has changed the world. But having the great strategy is not enough. To succeed you need to manage it through its execution and avoid the traps that lay ahead of you.

[1] Wikipedia