How to Wreck a Strategy

June 10, 2015 Chris Pearse

Strategies fail for many reasons, but the most insidious rarely gets a mention…

There are, of course, lots of ways of derailing a corporate strategy: a regressive culture that resists change; poor planning; over-ambition; lack of ownership… feel free to add to the list.

But a favourite of mine comes about through a blithe and blissful ignorance of some fairly basic human nature.

Let me explain using the popular and usually helpful metaphor of a journey:

A Strategy is a plan that gets you from where you are, to where you want to be:

Strategy gets you from A to B

Simple as that. Now there are a lot of strategy experts out there who might well challenge the simplicity of that statement, but I’ll stick by it for now. It’s worked well for me.

A is the current reality – the status quo. It’s a given.

B, on the other hand, is a dream, an aspiration. It needs fleshing out, crystallising into a coherent, practical vision. It needs to inspire, to galvanise the latent energy of the organisation in order to eventually make it real. It needs ownership, buy-in, leadership and lots of other popular management concepts.

So all you need do then, before setting out on your journey, is to work out what challenges you will meet en route. Then you can decide what you will need in order to deal with them –¬†and off you go…

Now, from this description of Strategy, it’s no surprise that a lot of time and energy goes into identifying and agreeing the organisation’s Vision. Without a clear and agreed destination, what hope is there of arriving? So naturally, senior teams, responsible for Strategy, put a lot of good effort into making the Vision as compelling, realistic and specific as possible. Then, and only then, can you work out what you’ll need to achieve it.

So what’s the¬†problem?

The problem is the assumption that the organisation knows where it is… That ‘A’ is a given. That the status quo is obvious.

Virtually every organisation that I’ve worked with has made this assumption to some degree, desperate to start work on the Vision and the Plan so that they can escape from the present into the future.

And yet every director and manager, when encouraged to do so, paints a different picture of the organisation, its inter-relationships, its dynamics, its culture.

The problem is that these dynamics don’t fit on a spreadsheet, they are beyond measurement. They are messy and chaotic. They are human. They are difficult to get to grips with and they elude analysis. Many leadership teams would rather avoid them. Some of them become ‘elephants in the room’.

The good news is that they don’t need resolution – all they need is respect.

That, then, is one reason why Strategies fail: They lack a shared understanding of the current realities – tangible and intangible.

So with no real consensus on where the organisation is today – how on earth is it going to deploy its Strategy in order to achieve its Vision?

How can you get from A to B if you don’t know where A is?

Without this foundation, the strategy is wrecked before it starts.

And the most vibrant, compelling vision of the future lies dead in the water.