Why Strategic Initiatives Fail

Is it implementation or planning?


Organizations invest significant amounts of time and resources into their strategic planning processes. However, while we may consider ourselves effective in the ideation stage, many of us seem to struggle when it comes to the actual implementation. Research by Kotter International has found that 70% of new, large-scale strategic initiatives fail, which echo the results of a McKinsey & Company study in 2009.

The reasons for this are complex and diverse. However, too often, many seem far too willing to take the easy way out and blame the execution of the strategy, when really, implementation was simply not considered enough before it was embarked on. Of course, as one article in Forbes put it, implementation is typically where organizations falter. That’s like saying most people fail their driving test during their driving test. If a car pulls out in front of you during your test and you fail because you don’t react properly, this is not a failure of execution or a freak occurrence, it is because you didn’t prepare enough to be able to successfully deal with the hazard. If a strategy does not make it to implementation because it was not good enough, you have really succeeded in not wasting your time on a duff strategy. In the same that if you don’t turn up to your driving test, you probably saved someone from getting run over.

Strategy is not an exact science and developing and implementing one successfully is often like trying to hit a moving target. Your plan needs to be flexible to the demands of a complex and fast-changing world and you must be ready to exploit any opportunities that present themselves during implementation and avoid any unforeseen hazards, of which there will always be many no matter how good your plan.

The first thing to ensure you get ahead of time is employee buy in. If your employees do not believe a plan can work, it is highly unlikely they are going to invest their time into carrying it out. Leadership needs to have a clear vision and communicate it. The best strategies are simple, especially because they often have to be carried out by overworked people who will abandon something if they don’t see an immediate benefit and believe it is holding them up. Keep the plan short too. If there are more than three or four strategic objectives that have to be implemented, people will start making excuses, saying they have too much to do, and you are will end up leaving them to prioritize, which may or may not be done in the order you prefer. Does the person you have given ownership of part of your plan to have the time to accomplish it? This needs to be considered as the plan is made, or it will not be completed to satisfaction.

To make certain everyone understands it, a plan has to be drilled into the business to the point where ignorance of the strategy is no excuse. Print it out, laminate it, and stick it up in the toilets if need be. Incept your staffs’ dreams and emblazon it across their brains. Furthermore, make a concerted effort to ensure everyone engages with it emotionally and inspire them or you risk each team veering off in its own direction. This should also help to create an environment whereby people feel they can come to you if the plan is failing. If results aren’t going the way you have told your employees it should go, they will often likely pretend they are for fear of getting fired - sometimes until it is too late to correct. You can prevent such a situation by making sure that they know they won’t be, at least not if they have carried it out as described, as well as making sure they are emotionally invested in seeing it successful.

While communicating your plan is great, however, never forget the most important part - ensuring that everyone actually understands it. Too many managers will have weekly meetings in which they repeat their objectives over and over, but never check to make sure the message is going in properly. Don’t measure communication purely in terms of how often you’ve ranted it at them, the only metric that really counts is how well key leaders understand what’s communicated.

It is also important to integrate flexibility into your plan. No strategy can anticipate every event that may help or hinder a company trying to achieve its strategic objectives, and anything could derail your efforts during implementation. While admittedly, there are some events simply too overwhelming, it is often the case that had more flexibility been built into a plan then the impact would have been at least cushioned. It is, therefore, essential to build an organization that is flexible and adaptive in all its dimensions. As mentioned before, employees and management play a crucial role in this. There is a fine balance between staying true to a strategy and taking time to see it through, versus being rigid in a changing world.

Finally, before executing a plan, make sure you understand your measurement process and the metrics you will need to look at to gauge its success. Invest in data technology and the staff to track these effectively. This will allow you to see where your strategy is failing so you can take action in real time to adapt it. 

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