5 ways strategy deployment fails

Deploying your strategy isn’t easy, here are 5 reasons deployments fail.

Geoff Wilson

The reality of strategic management is that it requires having a strategy and actually managing with the strategy as the touchstone. The first part isn’t easy…plenty of management “stories” masquerade as strategy without actually being founded on real choices about what to do and not to do.

The second part–managing with the strategy as touchstone–is downright hard. It’s hard because organizations have inertia…they keep moving in the direction they are already going. Overcoming this inertia is a real challenge when it comes to deploying strategy that involves a change in direction. Here are 5 root issues that we frequently witness for companies that “have” a strategy but are struggling to deploy it.

  1. Nobody knows: The executive team has focused on building a strong, coherent strategic plan.  The organization never gets the word. Need I say more?
  2. Strategy management is left to staff functions: Every strategy at organizations of any significant size and complexity comes with a need for coordination, control, reporting, and management.  So, many organizations set up a staff organization (in some companies, it’s a single person) to help coordinate the strategy.  The problem starts when line leaders start leaving strategy program execution to the staff organization.
  3. Initiative definitions are lofty and cute but ultimately meaningless: The company has a great, tailored set of marketing messages, but initiatives based on marketing messages are hard to manage. They need to be based on actual process change. “Customer success” may sound great to you and your friends, but how do you drill that down to the bedrock actions that deliver on such success? If your strategy can’t connect to economic and process reality, then you are probably here.
  4. Workstreams masquerade as initiatives: An initiative is a self-contained effort to change “something” within the company.  Great strategies are made u up of initiatives. The change may be around a process or product.  A workstream is a subset of activities within an initiative.  It may be somewhat self-contained, but it ultimately lacks standalone sense apart from the Initiative.  In other words, a workstream rarely delivers an overall result…it requires the result of other workstreams and coordination among them.  Many, many strategic deployment structures fail because they create “accountability” for workstreams and call them initiatives.  This results in every “initiative” requiring constant and tedious C-Level intervention to actually get things done because, well, none of the “initiatives” is actually self-contained.  While this may look like an odd and technical distinction, it actually matters a lot because it represents a failure of delegation.  An initiative ought to be self-contained as to design and to general decision rights, or else it’s just another cross-functional conflagration.
  5. The future is undefined: The deployment lacks a vision for the future. This is the opposite of point 1.  Strategic deployment looks like business as usual, but with PowerPoint and neat messages about component outcomes.  If your strategy lacks a view what the future state of the business is, it may be lacking something.  People are much better at executing when they have a view of a future than they are when they are given only concepts and objectives.  If you find that you are spending more time communicating with powerpoint and slogans than asking about the latest progress toward margin or sales improvement, you might be in this bucket.

There you have it:  Five reasons that strategy deployment fails.  There are many others, but these are my “five.”  The antidote is actually pretty simple to articulate, but harder to execute:  vision, communication, integration, and followup.

What do you think? Have you found the secret to great strategy deployment? 

 

 

The waiting is the hardest part

There is such a thing as strategic patience…

Geoff Wilson

I have a confession to make:

I’m impatient.  It’s a fundamental trait that I have wrestled with for years.  I’d love to think that I’m not alone and that it’s okay because other people are impatient, too, but the reality is that impatience is not okay.

Urgency is okay in most circumstances, but impatience?  Not really.

This reality has smacked me in the face HARD lately due to an adventure I’ve been on for the past 7 weeks.  A minor fall down some stairs left me with a torn quadriceps tendon.  It turns out that this type of injury is one that, while painful at its onset, is really a test of patience.  Following surgery a number of weeks ago I have been set aside, wings clipped and wheels idled, because I have not been able to bend my right leg.

Why?

Because this particular injury–a grafting of a very large tendon and muscle group back to the bony real estate of my kneecap–has to heal before I get to start rehabilitation. Waiting is actually the right thing to do. It’s excruciating.

And that, like many parts of life, brings to me a question:  While most of us want results and we want them now, is it often healthier to be patient? Is patience a strategic weapon?

Yes! Of course it is!  But we forget this so often.

I’ve witnessed executives wreck M&A negotiations by being impatient.  I’ve witnessed sales efforts scrapped by impatience.  I’ve witnessed promising innovations cast aside by–yep, you guessed it–impatient executives.  I’ve seen extremely valuable assets given away for a pittance by executives with a tyrannical urgency to do…something.

But, how do you know when waiting is actually the strategically correct position?

Usually, it’s the correct position when you know that things will sort.  In other words, if you have the luxury of time to wait to gain additional insight or maturity, then waiting is a strategic option that should be considered.  In most of the generic examples in my prior paragraph you see examples where the fear of missing out interjects to drive really bad decision making.

When in doubt, assess whether you have the ability to exercise a real option to wait.  It’s not always the right option, but it is one that should be on the table.

Sometimes, the time to be aggressive is after you’ve let things settle.

What do you think?

How do you respond to adversity?

Things are going to go sideways…so how do you respond?

Geoff Wilson

No strategy survives contact with the enemy.

That’s a timeless truth that, while written for a military crowd, is valid in all parts of life.

If you don’t like that one, how about this one:  “Man plans…God laughs.”

In other words, no matter how much you think you are in control, there are risk factors to any plan that will prove you are not.  These risk factors create adverse outcomes for your business, or maybe your career.  So, how do you respond to them?  How do you handle adversity?

I could riff here about always having contingency plans and ensuring that you have mitigated key risks across the board.  Those things are important and I certainly preach them to my clients.  Still, what do you do when a true black swan risk shows up in your back yard.  They do happen, and the way people respond to them are absolutely defining.

A famous case is the so-called “Tylenol murders” in the 1980s.  Bottles of Tylenol were laced with cyanide by some nut job (yeah, I know, but I can only call them like I see them).  People were dying.  And, what did Johnson & Johnson–the maker of Tylenol–do?  They pulled all distribution, stopped advertising, and recalled all the product from the shelf.  They absolutely gutted what was no doubt a cash cow for the corporation, and in doing so made a widely praised statement to the world that their focus was on product safety above profit.

I suspect that product tampering may have been on J&J’s radar before the incident, and J&J may have had contingency plans. But in any instance, the response to adversity was a defining moment.  Compare that to today’s situation with opioid pills–distributed to the letter and not the spirit of the law–leading to deaths of tens of thousands of people.  It’s not clear that current makers even have internal contingencies. They are being forced into contingencies by legal and social pressures.  Such inaction has defined perceptions of many drug makers lately as well.

What these cases illustrate is that how one responds to adversity usually tracks very closely to what one values.  When things go sideways (or south), you often are left with only your most basic principles to operate from.

As an individual, your most basic principles may be to ensure your family is provided for and your health isn’t impaired.

As an executive, your most basic principles may be to ensure the survival of the company in trying times.

As a board member, your most basic principles may be to ensure that the company operates both legally and ethically in times of strife.

As a strategist who works to maintain a focus on the real world, I can only say this:  Your plans are likely to succeed only partially, and in some instances, they will fail completely.  It’s in the basic values you espouse that you will find your likely responses to adversity.  Instead of the usual approach to management that involves working the business problem from the top down (e.g., forming a commander’s intent and disseminating it), you suddenly have to work the problem from the bottom up (e.g., falling back on the basic values that you have articulated and built into your organization).

If you don’t have a foundation of values that will allow you to clearly lead through adversity, you are likely to fail.

What do you think?

The strategic executive’s enduring dilemma

The hardest part about giving excellent advice is the hardest part about being an executive.

Geoff Wilson

One of the real disasters of the consulting profession is the consultant who really, sincerely, thinks he has it all figured out.  He’s the guy for whom no problem is unsolvable.  Usually, the advice on complex topics is distilled into “just” statements, like “just automate that process,” or “just downsize that organization.”

I have seen many, many seemingly impractical and amoral nuggets of advice emerge from otherwise smart, sincere people advising clients.  They often are packaged as “best practices” but ignore practicality.  In the worst of cases, they come from individuals who wouldn’t take the same risk with their own capital or reputations.  You know them…they are the consultants who give advice that looks like “acquire your way out of problems.” They like the big, provocative recommendation, but don’t appreciate the nitty gritty difficulty or bold-faced risk that their recommendations come with.  They just arm wave the risk away.

In forming a practical approach to strategic planning, I have found that the biggest challenge to strategic planning itself is the acknowledgement of the unknown or the un-experienced.  It is far, far easier to pose hypothetical assumptions about the world and then to claim them as true than it is to deal with the difficulties of reality as they are today.  What this challenge usually boils down to is lack of experience.  All too often, strategic advisors are brought in as a source of insight from a different perspective, and they end up marginalized (or, worse, cloistered with the CEO) because they simply don’t take the time to understand reality before pronouncing “solutions.”

This is where you end up with big but unworkable solutions to problems that genuinely require knowledge and care.  “Acquire your way out of the problem” is a great example.  It sounds great, but often ignores the compounded risks of acquisitions–valuation, integration, customer attrition, etc.  Once those risks are taken into account, an acquisition often looks like a roll of the dice; and it has to be more than that.  It has to be grounded in some amount of understanding of how the acquiring company will “money out” the deal.  This usually requires more than a passing understanding of the acquiror and the target.  And still, the advice is often given with neither.

So what?  Well, the answer is simple, but hard:  Experience bases take time to develop, both in employees and in advisors.  Build them, and then don’t forget them when forming big, audacious plans. Moreover, the tagline of this post is perhaps the most important one:  Executives suffer from the “big and easy” disease at a rate that is nearly as high as top consulting strategists.  From the cloister of the c-suite, it can be easy to gloss over real practical issues.

So, before making that next big pronouncement about your company’s strategy, or before taking action on the logically founded but inexperienced advice of a consultant, just remember this quote from J.R.R. Tolkien’s writing:

“Let him not vow to walk in the dark, who has not seen the nightfall.”

It’s a great, distilled “what just a minute” for any advisor or executive. Let us all acknowledge where our experience is lacking before we make drastic proclamations.  That is the hardest part of giving excellent advice.  And, it’s one of the harder parts of being an executive.

What do you think?  

Real dirt on your uniform

Sure, you want to show how hard you worked. But sometimes it’s better to just do the work.

Geoff Wilson

 “The optics aren’t good.” 

Ugh.  That phrase is the start of something bad in many circumstances.  Sometimes, bad optics and a good outcome is much better than a really pretty but really awful outcome.

Allow me a moment for two anecdotes…

Back in my college football days, I had a teammate who was caught rubbing dirt on his uniform after a game. He was not a guy who saw the field during games, but he really wanted to show that he had been in on the action.  One of the equipment managers noticed him squat near the sideline and pick up some dirt clods to rub on his uniform.

Voila!  Instant football hero.

Fast forward to my days at a top-tier consulting firm. In the middle of a hard-core operations strategy project in the electric power sector, we needed to run a workshop on site at a power plant.  The issue was that–safety standards being what they are–we needed to wear steel-toed boots.  So, of course all the white-shoe consultants go out and buy new steel-toed boots.  Except, one of the partners, convinced that his new boots were a bad signal, decided to spend some time scuffing his up enough to be inconspicuous on site.

Voila! Instant operations veteran.

These two stories are important reminders of the old adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover.

They are also a reminder that people will often go to great lengths and waste great amounts of time and energy to “look the part.”  They worry so much about the “optics” of a clean uniform that they actually go out and seek a dirt clod to rub on their uniform.

The same is true in the business world.  Often, the 100-page PowerPoint deck is simply a dirt clod, or a set of scuffed shoes.  It’s the way consultants, managers, and analysts show that they are doing real work–even when they aren’t.

I’ll just ask you this:  Is the work you are doing actual, real work to solve a problem for a customer, or are you just digging up a dirt clod to rub on your uniform?

Because sometimes a dirty uniform just means you fell down a lot.

What do you think? 

So smart you don’t have to listen…

Lack of listening betrays lack of empathy.

Geoff Wilson

 Are you too smart to listen?

You know that feeling: It’s that feeling that you already know the end of the discussion, so you don’t really have to be patient enough to listen?  Or, maybe it’s that feeling that your position of authority means you don’t have to listen.

It gets to you.  It especially gets to you if you don’t watch out for it.

Recently, I spent some time alongside a few consultants from a “top tier” firm after being away from them for quite a while.  What struck me was their lack of focus on others…their lack of listening.  It seemed that the lack of listening was built into the cultural model that comes with competitive upper tier strategy consulting. I remember it, but I hadn’t “felt” it for a while.

That model is built around being smart.  It’s built around knowing the facts better than the client.  It’s built around being more assertive than your next best peer (so that your superiors know you know what they don’t know).

And, here’s the rub…  In today’s age, it’s exceptionally hard to be the smartest person in the room. Access to information is quite broad. Demand for cultural sensitivity is commonplace. Skepticism of strategic platitudes is growing. This means that a pretty much nobody is smart enough not to listen.

And so, I’ll say it this way: You are not too smart to listen.  You may think you are, but you aren’t.  And, that guy or gal who sits back in the room and listens for a while?  Just remember that still waters run deep.  Honor it.  Don’t throw it away with the old “he didn’t add anything” trope.

Professionals who lack consistent ability and discipline to listen usually lack empathy in most other parts of their professional profile.  Which brings me to the point of this post:  Too smart to listen is all too often too smart to actually lead.

What do you think about that?

The hobgoblin of business strategists

If your strategy can’t be wrong, it’s not right.

Geoff Wilson

Business strategy, like any real strategic pursuit, is fundamentally ambiguous.  It involves estimating the future along many axes–regulatory policies, competitive behavior, customer tastes, supply shocks, organizational zeal, and investor requirements are just a few.

Ambiguity has a terrible consequence for some senior management teams and most strategy consultants: It leads them to adopt a style of communication and assertion that is unassailable.  You’ve probably seen it:  A request for a recommendation for what to do in the face of a possible change in trade policy turns into a long explanation from your consultant on how “it depends.” On the way to trying to be completely right, many of today’s management strategists turn to arguments that can’t be wrong, and an argument about ambiguous things that can’t be wrong is a pseudoargument.

Famous philosopher-scientist Karl Popper had this comment to describe the phenomenon:

In so far as a scientific statement speaks about reality, it must be falsifiable; and in so far as it is not falsifiable, it does not speak about reality.

So if you are a top manager who likes to resort to platitudes and spin vs. direction and argument, Popper would say you aren’t actually confronting reality, and confronting reality is the first order of business for any leader or adviser.

How does this actually look in the real world?  I think the best way to see it is to look for arguments that can’t possibly be wrong no matter the evidence placed in front of you. If your management strategist tells you that restructuring an industry via an aggressive M&A agenda is the right strategy, and you say “but valuations are too high” to only get the response that “this means M&A is the right thing to do because everybody is already seeing the value,” then your management strategist might be engaging in an un-falsifiable strategic argument.

A strategic argument must be falsifiable a priori.  That is, you must be able to say in which states of the world you might be wrong when the strategy is built, not after.  Anybody can tell you why a strategy was wrong once it encounters the real world; but if you can’t say what makes your strategy wrong, you probably don’t have a strategy (or at least a sound method for defining the strategy) in the first place.

That’s why strategies that only focus on inputs are often wrong: They are not falsifiable.  “Innovate” says the strategist, or “become more productive,” or “hire better talent.”  Those are all great strategic inputs, but they don’t survive the falsifiability test.  How about these:

  • Innovate in the personalized medicine space to meet a current need for cystic fibrosis therapy
  • Become more productive in our pipeline repair process to regain lost capacity to serve existing customers
  • Hire better talent at CEO to avoid management platitudes and ensure sound strategy

See what I mean?  The comments above are falsifiable in states of the world where (1) there is no need for CF therapies, (2) there is no need for capacity to serve customers, and (3) the CEO understands the need for falsifiable business strategy. Strategy is an argument, and ideally it’s a scientific argument. But for an argument to be scientific, it must be precise enough to be wrong when presented with countervailing evidence.  In short, your business strategy must be falsifiable.

Try it out:  Ask yourself what your strategy is, and then test whether you can envision a future where it is wrong.  If you can, then you are probably standing on solid ground. If you can’t?  Well, you are probably engaging in pseudoscience.  This is the hobgoblin of top management consultants and senior managers of all stripes.

If your strategy can’t be wrong, it’s not right.

What do you think?  Do you see “strategies” that are merely platitudes disguised as science? 

Strategy is hard when you’re scared

Thinking long is hard when things are short.

Geoff Wilson

Have you ever been in a circumstance where short-term shocks completely derail long-term plans?  You might see it in your family life when an illness strikes, or in your professional life when the loss of a customer leads to wholesale panic. On average, we are poorly prepared to stay the course during adversity.  We get defensive.  We get scared.

Part of this is a fact of our minds:  We narrow our focus during times of strife.  When life gets short, we close our ranks; we narrow our circles of friends.  When life is long again, we expand our horizons and think big.  I wrote about that a while back in this blog post.  In it, I outlined how shared vision of the future prevents small thinking.

In this case, however, I am posing the question a little more narrowly:

Can you be strategic when you are scared?

You are scared of losing your job, so what do you do?  You are scared of an economic downturn, so how do you manage your business?  You are scared of…wait for it…being wrong, so how does that affect your decision making?

We all respond to fear a little differently.  Some of us throw the problem on our backs and carry on.  Some of us wait for somebody else to do it.  Some of us simply freeze.  The traditional model of fear reaction that most of us know is “fight or flight,” but I’m a fan of a model that was proposed by Dave Grossman in his book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in Modern Society. In that book, Grossman outlines the four possible responses to fear: Fight, flight, posture, and submit.

We fight when we actively take on the fear with countering force or influence.

We flee when we actively avoid the fear by putting distance between us and it.

We posture when we attempt to show our strength without actually doing anything.

We submit when we open up our soft underbelly to the fear and let the fear win. We freeze.

And, here’s the rub…most of us are wired to posture. That is, we are wired to figuratively inflate our chest, yell a battle cry, and fire our guns into the air.  In a business context, we are wired to schedule more meetings, produce more presentations and analysis, and show our boss or board how much activity we are producing in the face of adversity.

We aren’t wired to fight.  We aren’t wired to resort to violent action in the face of adversity.  In the professional context, we aren’t wired to take action on winning that next customer when we’ve just lost one.

We are wired to posture…to explain the situation (sometimes violently) vs. solving it.

And, we are wired to submit…to become victims of circumstance…to freeze in the face of fear.

And, that makes strategy hard when fear is involved.  Keeping our eyes on a long-term strategy when short-term shocks upend the organization is the stuff of exemplary leaders.

We live in interesting times.  I have clients dealing with the bucking bronco of current trade policy uncertainty.  I have clients projecting the next recession constantly. I have clients worried about finding the talent required to carry out their aspirations. And of course, I have clients dealing with their own, very personal fears that relate to turbulence in their own personal lives.

I think the most basic piece of advice I can offer is this:  Despite what so many attempt to brand as “fearless leadership” or “fearless strategy,” nobody lacks fear.  There is no such thing.  Even the most emotionless automaton of a corporate executive is afraid of being exposed about something.  If you can admit your fear, and if you can determine whether your response to that fear is actually productive–am I fighting or fleeing vs. posturing or freezing–you will be far ahead of the game.

If you can keep your eyes on the horizon while you walk through a bed of thorns, you will set yourself apart from the pack.

Strategy is hard when you are scared.

What do you think:  Does fear get in the way of long term strategy? 

Don’t tell me what you believe…show me where you invest.

In a world of punditry, knowing where people invest will show what they believe.

Geoff Wilson

Where is the most compelling evidence of what you really believe (as opposed to what you say you do)?

It’s in what you own.

More specifically, it’s in where you invest.

Even back to biblical times, it was understood that “where your treasure is, your heart will be also.”  That’s Matthew 6:21 (NIV).  Where you put your resources reflects what you believe.  This is not a new or original concept, but it’s a very important one.

In this age, I’d suggest a couple of alterations to the concept.  First, treasure today is as much about time as it is money or assets.  Second, because we have so many ways of telling people what we believe (the POTUS likes Twitter), and because we can often conceal where we invest time and money, knowing where others actually place their values can be a challenge.

And that’s the point of this post: Where you invest shows more about what you believe than what you say does.  The inconsistency is apparent in “easy” cases like the CEO who says innovation is important but who cuts the R&D budget incessantly; I call this easy because everybody can see it.  Where things really get interesting is when you see normally concealed things like the leaders of tech companies not letting their kids use the tech they have helped to develop (cases of this have come out with respect to Apple, Facebook, and others).

That shows what they really believe.

So the next time you are confronted with a leader who says they believe in something, do a little bit of poking around to see where the budget is allocated and where time is allocated.  You will often find that what they say doesn’t match what they invest in–like they say they believe in putting the customer first but haven’t talked to a customer in a year.

Talk is cheap.

Oh, and like anything else, this can apply to you. Maybe get your own house in order as well.

Don’t tell me what you believe, show me where you invest.  That will tell me what you believe.

What do you think? 

What the fear of missing out does to your business strategy

You don’t want to miss an opportunity, and that means you might miss them all.

Geoff Wilson

What does a smart strategist do with resources?

Most would say that “strategy” in and of itself depends on focusing the investment of resources against valuable ends. But what happens when you have too many possible directions to go with your resources?  Or, worse yet, what happens if you are afraid to focus on a critical few ends?

What if you suffer from an all too human factor:  the Fear Of Missing Out, or FOMO for short?

Here’s what happens:  Your fear of missing out exacts a price on your focus because every opportunity you pursue comes with a little bit of distraction.  Call it the fixed cost of opportunity pursuit: The need to organize, plan, and simply think about any given opportunity just to start it up.

To illustrate, assume that you have 100% of your mind to allocate.  Now imagine that any given opportunity you pursue comes with a 5% fixed “mind cost” of addressing it.  If that’s the case, then addressing three opportunities leaves 85% of your time after the fixed cost (or nearly 30% of your attention per opportunity) to truly develop them. But pursuing five leaves 75% (or about 15% per opportunity) and pursuing ten?  That leaves half your time to dedicate and only 5% to pursue each opportunity.  And so it goes: The fixed cost of opportunity pursuit, even if it’s small, devours valuable development time.  But while the cost of pursuit may be linear, the price you pay per pursuit in terms of dilution is essentially exponential.

And, no, you can’t escape the fixed cost, because it’s more than organizational.  Even left fully alone, you have to contend with your own brain, which incurs a cost when shifting gears.  That’s why multi-tasking is a dangerous thing.  Your brain simply can’t filter out all the noise between the many focus areas.

The impact to your organization is easily as bad. You see this all the time: the organizational costs imposed on opportunity pursuit.  They might look like project reviews, justifications, planning meetings, and deployment program reviews, and in some organizations, these exceedingly hungry mandates devour more of the managers’ time than actually pursuing opportunities.

Admit it…you’ve seen this happen.  And, all too often, it’s because of the fear of missing out: ol’ FOMO.

But what drives the fear of missing out?  In almost all instances it’s confidence. You don’t know enough about a critical few things, so you spread your bets around…only in doing so, you don’t simply allocate resources, you simultaneously dilute them.  In gambling terms, you play with scared money; you impose a fear tax. In the process, you often create a lot of really small initiatives that don’t go very far or make much difference. Refer to this article from a few years ago about killing these “gerbils” in your plans.  In simple terms, the fear of missing out leads you to this: You don’t want to miss an opportunity, and that means you might miss them all.

So what is the point of all this?  It’s pretty basic, actually. Challenge yourself to focus on the critical few things that matter. If you don’t have the confidence to do so, invest the time to build it.  Challenge your organization to do the same.  That’s what a smart strategist does with resources.

What do you think?  Are you diluting your focus out of fear?