We even made a video about it. With meerkats.
Hundreds of people have emailed us to say how familiar that scenario is to them. So one of the first questions I ask new clients using Cascade, is ‘what went wrong with your last strategy?’. In this article, I’m going to summarize the most common reasons why so many strategies fail.
#1: Starting too early
This is going to sound a little controversial, but here goes: You don’t always need a strategic plan.
When we started Cascade Strategy back in 2013, we didn’t have a strategy. We had an idea. We had a dream. Maybe at a push, we even had a vision. But not much else. And it’s not like we didn’t try either. We sat down several times and tried to create a cohesive 5 year strategy for our startup. The problem was, that every few weeks, we learnt something new and completely changed our minds.
To be honest, I don’t think brand new startups can really have strategic plans. If anything, having a plan could cause you to be too rigid in your decision making, and too dogmatic about your product. Of all the strategic plans that we’ve created for our company, the first one that has actually been useful was written just 6 months ago. Because before then, we just weren’t armed with the information we needed to be truly focused and strategic.
I’ve seen this same scenario play out among quite a few of our clients too. Not so much because they were startups, but because they decided to try to implement a strategy right at the start of a transformation journey.
There are a few things you can do to test whether or not you’re trying to create your strategy too early. Once you’ve created the first version of your plan, ask yourself the following questions:
- Was creating your strategy hard? Creating a strategy shouldn’t be hard as you should know exactly what you need to do, and in which order.
- Did it make sense when you sat down and explained your strategy to someone else? Talking through your strategy out loud with someone outside the organization is a great litmus test for getting a feel for whether your strategy will succeed or fail.
- After a couple of weeks, does it still feel like 100% the right thing to do? Or do you still feel just as directionless as before you started?
If you answered no to any of the above questions, there’s a good chance that you’re trying to create your strategy too early. These strategies fail more often than they succeed, and worse still they can hurt your belief in strategic planning – which is a belief you’re going to need as you progress through your journey.
#2: A lack of specificity
First of all – am I the only one who struggles to say the word ‘specificity’?
Second of all – strategies fail when they lack focus and detail. I’ve seen so many examples of grandiose strategies that fail to nail down any concrete actions, goals or projects. For each focus area within your strategy, you need at least one KPI and several concrete projects that will actually deliver against that part of the strategy.
When you’re creating your strategy, try to stick to the SMART goal principles – ensuring that your goals are:
#3: A lack of honesty
One of our 3 core values here at Cascade Strategy is integrity. Not the kind of integrity where you don’t steal someone else’s chocolate bar from the fridge (that happens). Rather, the kind of integrity where we try our utmost to:
- Be upfront about our limitations
- Only say that we agree with something if we actually agree with it
- Speak our minds about things we’re not happy about
One of the most common reasons given by our clients about why their strategies fail is ‘Not everyone was on board’.
Executing a strategy is hard. It’s usually over and above business-as-usual, and requires people to invest their time, energy and emotions into something with no guarantee of success. Getting your team on the same page is therefore critical to giving your strategy the best possible chance of success. That’s not to say that everyone needs to agree on everything. But they do need to be willing to share their concerns (and you willing to hear them) rather than just pay lip-service to the direction of the plan.
The good news is, you probably already know who in your team isn’t fully bought in to your strategy. That’s the easy part. The hard part is creating an environment where they feel comfortable sharing their concerns. There are a whole bunch of reasons why someone may not open up right away – they may:
- Lack confidence in themselves and their opinion.
- Feel marginalized and that their views will put them further into the minority.
- Not feel empowered or that their views will be listened to.
Don’t forget, people respond to situations very differently from one another. Some will feel confident opening up about their views on the strategy in the team meeting – whilst others may need a 1:1 chat over coffee.
#4: Resistance to change
When we first started this company, we did the typical software startup thing of lugging our laptops and projectors from client to client, trying to impress them with the software we’d built. Some of them bought, but most of them didn’t. We started to wonder if maybe our product didn’t match up to the competition as well as we’d hoped, so we started asking our sales leads about this very topic. One response really stuck with me:
Your biggest competitor isn’t another company. It’s the status quo.
In other words – being the best isn’t enough, if people aren’t actually willing to get up and make changes.
Strategies fail for exactly the same reason. You can have the best strategy in the world, but if the people around you are too set in their ways to change, then you’ve got a major problem.
Unfortunately, there’s no magic formula to getting people excited about change. It’s a fact of life that some people will always be more comfortable with what’s familiar to them. And here’s the thing – sometimes, you should listen to them. Change isn’t always a good thing, and sometimes the people resisting have valid points that need to be considered.
When you do encounter ‘resistance for the sake of resistance’, spend a bit of time trying to figure out what’s actually behind it. You’ll often find that people aren’t resistant to the actual change itself, but rather the thought of that change is triggering an emotional, human response. The most common culprit is fear – of job security, of social changes in the work environment, or something similar. Address the root cause of the resistance, and there’s a good chance you’ll get the person on board with the change itself.
#5: Lack of rigour
Creating a strategic plan is really just the beginning. The riskiest point in the life-cycle of a strategy is in the first 6 months of its existence. This is where so many strategies fall by the wayside or lose momentum. If you can get through the first 6 months and still be actively tracking and delivering against your strategy, there’s a good chance that it won’t become one which fails. So how do you transition from creating your strategy to executing it? We actually wrote a complete post on this topic last month, so check that out – but probably the most important element is rigour.
At Cascade Strategy, we call this rigour your ‘Strategy Rhythm’. Specifically, you need to:
- Book regular strategy meetings into your diary.
- Send out reminders to people a few days before those meetings that they need to update their goals.
- Agree upon a consistent report that you will use for each meeting.
- Provide concrete resolutions in those meetings to issues that may cause problems for your strategy.
Applying this type of rigour to your strategy execution not only helps keep you focused and on track, but it also helps to build the credibility of the strategy in the minds of your people. The fact that you as the leader are dedicating so much time and attention to the strategy is a great way of reminding people how important it is to the future of the organization.
There are of course plenty of other reasons why strategies fail – but the 5 reasons above are all within your control to manage. I’d love to hear your own additions to the list in the comments below, or via our social media channels.