5 Reasons your strategy may be failing

5 Reasons your strategy may be failing

I love doing strategy work. It suits my personality. And a large percentage of my time is spent helping companies devise strategies.

When working with clients, it’s obvious where they go wrong with their strategies.

Watch the video, or continue reading below.

Here are the five most common reasons I encounter. Of course, there are more than I could list here, but these five are the first places I look.

  1. The strategy is a wish
  2. A personality is infecting the business strategy
  3. The strategy has not been communicated
  4. The real problems remain elusive
  5. Shiny things are distracting

Let’s explore each one in turn.

The strategy is a wish

A common thing I see when reviewing strategies is that the strategy is made up of wishes, rather than tangible outcomes.

It’s important to paint a picture of the future based on evidence, insight and data – not wishes.

Many company strategies are simply wishes.

For example, one headline from a strategy I read recently stated something along the lines of:

“Our product will be the best in the marketplace”

My usual style of working with clients is to get them thinking, so I ask a lot of questions.

  • Why will it be the best product?
  • How will it be the best product?
  • Who “says” it’s the best product? i.e. How are you measuring this?
  • When will it be the best product?
  • Why is it not the best product already? What needs to change?
  • Do you have the right people to make it the best product?
  • What’s stopping you from having the best product already?

As you can see, when we ask questions like these about a strategy, we can start to understand the evidence, insights and data behind these wishful statements.

Many strategies I see are simply a list of wishes about what people “want” the future to be like.

There is no harm in thinking big and making this bright future compelling. But this painted picture should be based on what the customer needs, what the market gives you permission to build and what’s remotely possible. This bright future should look at where you are now and what’s stopping you achieving this future.

After all, a strategy is simply knowing what you’re trying to achieve (realistically), knowing where you are right now (honestly) and identifying the gaps, challenges and opportunities between the two (carefully).

A personality is infecting the business strategy

Another common problem I see is that the strategy is merely a reflection of a strong personality (typically the CEO or Chairperson).

They contain empty fluffy statements such as:

  • “We’re going to dominate the market”
  • “We’re going to crush the competition”
  • “We’re going to win this fight/race/war”
  • “We’re never going to give in”

And the worst one I’ve see:

“We’re going to give everything we have and die if we have to”

Die! No thanks. Business isn’t that important.

These are examples of personality traits infecting the strategy.

  • “We’re going to dominate the market”This is outside of your control.
  • If you can control this – can’t others too?
  • “We’re going to crush the competition”Why?
  • You’re in business to provide something the customer isn’t getting elsewhere. Why then do you need to crush the competition?
  • “We’re going to win this fight/race/war”What fight/race/war?
  • Who are you fighting with and why?
  • What will the casualties be like?
  • “We’re never going to give in”But what if you can’t win?
  • There are always people better than us. Teams that are stronger. Ideas that don’t go anywhere.
  • I’ve seen companies following strategies like this. And sometimes they’re in the wrong race, or the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall. And they don’t give in. Until they run out of customers, market share etc.
  • “We’re going to give everything we have and die if we have to to dominate the market”
  • No we are not.
  • Maybe you, as the leader or CEO, are happy to die trying to fulfil YOUR dream, but please don’t inflict that on the rest of the business.
  • The meaning of life is simple: it’s to be alive.

The strategy has not been communicated

When I’m working with a client on strategy work, I like to run an experiment.

I speak to as many people in the organisation as possible and I ask them what the strategy of the company is.

Many people can recite a few topline ideas, maybe some numbers from the slide decks – and almost everyone can remember the many times they’ve been “told” what the strategy is.

It’s rare to find many people who truly understand the strategy – and, more importantly, know how what they are doing is contributing to it.

It’s not from a lack of executives and managers “talking” about the strategy. There are hundreds of Powerpoint slides, posters, induction packs and the like explaining what the strategy is. Every company meeting will include details of what the strategy is.

So it’s not from a lack of executives talking about it.

But – communication happens in the head of the listener. It’s something THEY do.

And if you aren’t communicating in a way that resonates with the listener – then the chances are your message won’t get through.

Communication is hard. And in my experience most leaders try to be efficient when communicating the strategy, rather than effective.

In one company the execs introduced the new strategy via a company all-hands. They had glamorous slides and loads of data. They took turns presenting the strategy from each functional angle.

It was boring, but the execs considered it a job well done.

It wasn’t.

Here’s what I suggested.

  • They create a simple, easy to read pack which they distribute to everyone.
  • They hold their company meetings and introduce the strategy.
  • They spend time with each team talking through the strategy and what it means for each team.
  • They encourage their managers to hold 1:2:1 with each of their team to talk through the strategy, gather input and ensure people understand it. The power of this is that the manager should know the communication preferences of everyone in their team. They can tailor it to suit.
  • They tie everything in the workplace back to the strategy; hiring, retention, rewards and all communication.

Instead, most execs fire and forget.

Over-communication of “poor communication” is just as bad as too little communication.

Communication is about being effective first. And this starts by realising that communication is something the lister does.

The real problems remain elusive

A strategy should include a compelling future painted picture. Something worth aiming for.

But the foundations of a good strategy rely on knowing where you currently are on this journey.

I’ve seen some cracking painted pictures in my career – but I rarely see the company do the hard work of understanding what their current problems are.

They set sail and discard systemic issues, compound problems with more problems and meander ahead never really realising this bright future.

I always ask executives the following question :

“If this future is so compelling, why are you not already there yet?”

Baked in to this question is the need for executives and managers to truly study and understand what their current problems are.

And this can be hard for people to do – because the chances are their current problems were created by themselves.

Without leaning into current problems, it’s virtually impossible to move ahead quickly and smoothly.

There are always more problems than a company has time to address, so it’s essential to study which ones are stopping you from achieving this bright future – and then to only focus on those.

It’s understandable that people will focus on easy problems, interesting problems or problems that are nearest to them, but to truly move ahead you must address the very problems stopping you. And some of these may be gnarly indeed.

It makes little sense to head to a destination without fully understanding where you currently are.

Problems are an opportunity to make the business better – it surprises me how few leaders and managers ever want to face into them.

Shiny things are distracting

We get the results and outcomes from where we focus our energy and attention.

If we have a compelling future vision and we have leant in to the problems that are in the way, then this is where energy and attention must be focused.

Some organisations I work with have both a compelling future vision and have leant in to their problems, but when I study what work is going on – it’s not the work involved to overcome those problems.

Instead leaders are embarking on large change programs, rather than solving the very problems they know about. They are busy rolling out new IT hoping it will solve the problems they face – it likely won’t.

They are solving easy problems, they are not facing in to tough conversations and they are hoping that by working hard on anything – they will see results.

Once we know what problems we need to solve, energy and attention from all in the company should follow.

People are busy. People are working hard. But are they busy working hard on the right things?

A strategy should also have a plan. A detailed plan of who will be doing what to move the business ahead.

And once you have that plan – energy and attention will deliver it.


A strategy is simple:

  1. A painted picture of the future
  2. Honesty over where you are right now
  3. Knowledge gained from studying what is stopping you from achieving this bright future
  4. A plan to overcome the obstacles – detailing who, what, where, when
  5. Energy and attention on the right things

It’s simple. It’s not easy though.

And if you’re a manager or leader – it’s on you to remain focussed. To solve problems. To direct energy and attention. And to study the work being done.

Good luck.