3 Reasons Good Strategies Fail

Oct 25, 2012

 A version of this article first appeared at Inc.com.

We’ve all experienced the frustration of realizing that a highly prized, hard-fought-for, innovative strategy has gone south.

You know the pattern: hopeful execution followed by poor results, an initial period of denial, doubling down on execution…then the pang of recognition that this just ain’t gonna work, and finally the painful process of unravelling from what we now accept was a flawed strategy to begin with.

Sound familiar? I see this pattern repeat frequently in the leadership teams I work with, but I’ve also noticed something else: around two-thirds of the time, there’s nothing actually wrong with the strategy itself – the core problem lies elsewhere. Here are the three most common reasons why good strategies go bad, and how to fix them without ditching the strategy itself:

1. Throwing out the bathwater with the baby.

The implementation of a new strategy often involves hiring or promoting someone who is specifically tasked with the implementation of that strategy: a designer for the splashy, expensive new web site perhaps, or a business development exec for the new strategic push into Asia.

Sometimes – often, in fact – we get the hiring wrong. And, as a result, because we’ve appointed the wrong person, the strategy fails – or seems to. Truth is, there may well be nothing wrong with the strategy, it’s just that we hired the wrong person to execute it. But because hiring is difficult, we often just dump the whole idea – strategy and all – rather than go through the whole tortuous process again.

So next time you realize you’ve put the wrong person in place to execute a strategy, don’t dump the strategy – take a deep breath and instead, find the right person to implement it.

2. Pulling up the plant to stare at the root.

Who plants a sapling then pulls it up every week to see how the roots are coming along? That would be dumb, right? And yet I see it happen with strategic implementation all the time: A perfectly fine strategy is implemented, but rather than giving it time to show results, the post-mortems begin almost immediately.

And if results aren’t forthcoming quickly enough, we start tinkering with the strategy – the strategic equivalent of pulling it up by the roots and replanting it over and over again.

Here’s what I ask executives in the strategic planning stage: Would you rather this strategy fails in six months, or succeeds in twelve? Sounds like a no-brainer – but if the answer is that you want it to succeed in twelve months, then it’s up to you to be patient and give it that long to bear fruit.

Having milestones to measure by along the way is fine, but if results aren’t exactly what you budgeted for, resist the temptation to pull the entire strategy out by the roots and re-engineer it – all you’re doing is killing the plant.

3. Right strategy, wrong tactics.

Remember Netflix’s 2011 pricing blunder? Some research analysts calculated that they could have lost up to 30% of their recurring income as a result of the ham-handed way they tried to split subscriber plans between DVD rentals and streaming downloads.

The fact is, splitting the physical DVD rental business from the streaming download market made a lot of sense. Clearly the problem wasn’t with the strategy – the problem lay with the clumsy tactics they used, which they have since fixed.

So next time a strategy of yours goes belly up, ask yourself – is it really the strategy that’s at fault, or does the problem lie with how you executed it? If the latter, gird your loins, make the changes you need, and try again.