“I got up this morning and decided to launch a losing strategy in my business,” said no one ever. Of course, all business leaders put thought and rationale into developing their strategies. Despite that effort, things aren’t going as planned for many organizations.
According to a global survey by PwC, more than half of senior executives didn’t think they had a winning strategy in their business. In another executive survey, 90% thought they were missing major opportunities in the market. Respondents to a Wharton study said they achieved only 63% of their expected results from their strategic plans.
Why then do so many well-intended initiatives fall short?
Internal conversations surrounding strategy failure might include things like poor execution, timing, unforeseen circumstances, competitive response, lack of coordination, competing priorities, and more. While these reasons may be perfectly legitimate, they might also mask other underlying causes. Here are a few common causes of strategy failure and solutions to help improve outcomes.
Strategies developed in isolation…
Strategies often come from the CEO, owner, and/or a very small group. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that as long as those involved are close to their market. In a conference room, lots of ideas appear to have merit until they’re rolled out among the operational teams, customers, and consumers. When strategic responsibility is concentrated, consider ways to vet potential new initiatives with a broader group perhaps by functional area, and with partners or customers.
…and without regard to how the work gets done.
In most cases, the people charged with carrying out a new strategy are different from those who decided on it. The implementers usually also had full time jobs before the new strategy came along. The urgent demands of daily work affect their ability to follow through on implementation. Even before rollout of a new strategy, leaders need to consider workloads, priorities, and skill sets. The internal team’s capabilities and capacity should be part of the implementation conversation. Teams rallying behind a new initiative doesn’t happen simply because the leaders say so.
Inconsistent or unclear communication
In the aforementioned PwC study, 80% of leaders thought that their business strategy wasn’t well understood within their own company. Any new strategy needs to be absorbed and embraced by employees. The leader’s skill in change management weighs heavily on successful implementation. It’s not enough just to tell them what you want. Help employees see what you see and want to feel part of the new strategy. Here are some ways to do that.
- Make the case for change by covering the current issues and opportunities facing business. Explain why the new strategy will help the business move forward.
- Paint a picture of the future by sharing what the new strategy means to the organization and to the people. Help them see themselves in the new strategy, to see personal benefits. Show them what success looks like in 6, 12 months and longer term.
- Explain how the strategy affects their work and their priorities. And you. Explain what they can expect from you and what you expect from them.
- Communicate all ways and always. Share the new strategy multiple times, by multiple means…and check in with people around the business to gauge their understanding. Take responsibility for carrying the message and helping others do the same. Continue to communicate about progress, obstacles, and revisions.
As the sum total of experiences, understandings, and the grounding of how employees see themselves, organizational culture can fuel productivity...or hold it back. A new strategy may or may not have a bearing on culture. Consider the cultural implications before launching and address those up front.
Ultimately, all of the above factors affect Execution.
In an Economist study, 88% of business leaders said that strategy execution was vital to business success. (Who knows what the other 12% were thinking!) And 61% felt their companies didn’t do a good job with execution. Along with pondering new strategy, leaders need to consider what needs to change internally in order for their organization to successfully pursue new goals.
Aside from the obvious, here are a few elements that result in effective execution…
- Communication is a two way street. We covered the outbound communication above. In the execution phase, it’s very important that leaders spend time listening to their teams, customers, and partners. Listen for concerns, obstacles, and ideas. Follow up and then continue. Good execution is a result of an ongoing conversation within an organization.
- Prioritization – Implementers need to know how important the new strategy really is. They won’t judge it by words alone but by what leaders do. As in, what will be done differently from before? How will work be changed to help address the new priority?
- Resource allocation is where reality sets in. The importance of a new strategy is directly related to the resources allocated to support it. Insiders will be looking at your decisions here to gauge how they should support the new initiative.
- Coordination is the hard part of linking work among teams to support the new strategy. This requires leaders to remain continually engaged rather than announcing the change and stepping back. Think of this work as orchestrating mutual success among your teams and showing that you believe progress is important. Coordination is easier when leaders have followed up with the prior steps.
- Ownership is sometimes overlooked in broad, organization-wide initiatives. Specific responsibility for outcomes should be assigned from the top down. If only the leader owns it, no one does. Milestones should be reflected in team and individual goals.
- Monitoring and follow up. According to the Wharton study, less than 15% of companies track performance compared to their strategic plan beyond the first year. This lack of multi-year tracking makes it easy to forget (or ignore) shortfalls in long-term strategy. It also denies the opportunity to learn from the past. A few years ago, I was working with a group in Spain. They were coming off a very successful year with double digit growth in sales and profit. As they reviewed their business with me, they said “While we’re happy that the results improved, it’s not where we want to be. Business conditions have been tough the past couple years and we’re really only getting back to where we were. We have higher goals.” I applauded their honesty…and their long-term view, forward and back.
- Appreciation should be built-in part of the strategy program. Just as ownership of milestones and tasks should be added into team and individual goals, leaders need to ensure that recognition and reward are part of regular updates to the company.
Effective implementation of strategy requires ongoing leadership commitment. It’s a combination of what leaders say and what they do. Following the tips above can help more organizations match outcomes with their plans.
As always, I welcome your thoughts, comments, and advice. Please share these tips to help others reach their strategic goals.
Mike Irwin is a mentor, advisor, and strategist. Drawing from his past as a startup co-founder/President, executive officer of a $1+ billion market cap company (WD-40), public company CFO, VP Marketing, global chief strategy officer, head of sales, and board member, Mike uses his diverse background to help companies grow sales, improve profitability, and scale up. He serves as an advisor, consultant, fractional or interim CEO/GM/MD, and on boards of directors. He’s also a community volunteer, youth sports coach, author, cyclist, and marathoner. Follow him at BottleRocketAdvisors.com, get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org or connect on LinkedIn.