Why Strategies Fail

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Most strategies fail. Estimates range from 50% to 90%. Why? Because organizations are unable to create the shared intention needed to achieve results.

We’re confused about what ‘strategy’ really is. The debate rages on. Is it a process or a plan? Neither! That’s why we get dismal outcomes. Strategy is purpose.

Strategy is an organization’s DNA — the genetic code that shapes what it is. Its reason to exist, how it acts in the world, and how well it is equipped to be successful.

Every organization is one player among many in a larger system. It must find answers to the following questions:

  • What is its role?
  • How does it create value?
  • What capabilities does it need to survive?
  • How should it design these capabilities to produce competitive advantage?

Treating strategy as a process or plan sidesteps these fundamental questions.

We fall into a trap when strategy is just a repetitive exercise. Organizations go through the motions, preserving the status quo and adding no new thinking. They create a collection of to-do lists with conflicting priorities. Strategy becomes a game where people justify what they’re doing by linking their tasks to vague ideals.

We fall into another trap when we treat strategy as a plan, without being clear on its higher purpose. Organizations execute endless projects, focusing on activities rather than reaching for game-changing outcomes. They’re fixated on doing rather than being.

Treating strategy as an organization’s reason for being leads it to focus instead on its level of fitness. Is it equal to the opportunities in front of it? Is it continually becoming what it needs to be?

How it’s doing is assessed by truthfully answering the following questions:

  • Is the organization’s purpose clear?
  • Does it have the capabilities needed to achieve that purpose?
  • Are these capabilities functioning well?
  • Is it creating value?
  • What can it do to perform at a higher level?

The often-told story of three bricklayers contrasts the three different ways of thinking. We recall that when a passerby asked the three men, hard at work, what they were doing, each one had a different answer.

The first replied, “I’m laying bricks.”

The second responded, “I’m making a wall.”

The third stood tall, gestured at the sky, and whispered reverently, “I’m building a cathedral.”

When an organization lives strategy as purpose, people believe and commit to something more important. They take their organization’s purpose as their own, and work to increase their impact.

This article is an excerpt from a book in progress on collaboration and transformative change. It was first posted on September 5, 2017, on LinkedIn.

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David Forrest

David is the founder of the Integral Strategy Network. He is a writer, futurist, strategist, and facilitator of systemic change.

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