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Most Of Your Organization’s Strategic Initiatives Fail

Here’s why. And “the way” to fix the problem.


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scott doniger

3 years ago | 10 min read

According to a 2017 survey of 500 senior executives from global organizations recently published by the Brightline Initiative, in conjunction with The Economist Intelligence Unit, only 10% responded that their organization was able to achieve all of their strategic objectives. In other words, only one-in-10 succeeded in meeting all of their strategic objectives.

On average, organizations fail to meet 20% simply due to poor implementation. How does your organization compare to the results of the survey?

Failing to achieve some or all of your organization’s strategic objectives is a challenge; only achieving 10% is potentially terminal.

Think of your life — it’s like deciding that some big things need to change. So, you challenge yourself to achieve three important things in the next year: 1. save at least 10% of your income for a rainy day; 2. cut 10lbs. and keep it off for a year; and 3. visit your mom on her birthday, mothers day, and thanksgiving (oh, and call at least once a week).

If, at the end of the year, you don’t have any savings, you weigh the same (or even more), but your mother stops the guilt because you’re calling weekly (no small win), you’ve still abjectly failed at more than 80% of what you set out to accomplish.

So when only 10% of enterprises say they’ve achieved all of their strategic objectives (and a majority say they failed to achieve even 50%), it’s fair to say — Houston, we’ve got ourselves a problem.

Strategy Design AND Implementation Planning Need Help

I recently completed a certificate course from the Brightline Initiative called “Bridging the Gap Between Strategy Design and Delivery”. Coursework helped illuminate the very important but oft-overlooked idea that there is a massive chasm between strategy design and delivery — this gap is critical in the kind of turbulence global organizations face today (topic of the next post in this series).

Great strategy is useless if implementation planning isn’t part of the design of that strategy. And, that assigning the majorty of resources to implementation efforts is equally useless if strategy design isn’t aligned to corporate purpose and objectives. The nuances of this balance were smartly outlined by Brightline:

Weakness in strategy is defined as a critical contributor to the inability to achieve objectives. Three attributes of poorly designed strategy stood out:

  1. lack of clarity across the organization about which strategic choices were highest priority, why those strategic choices were the most important for the organization as a whole, and why others were not;
    2. weak understanding of what the company has the capacity to achieve, combined with an overconfident assumption that the company could achieve both over-stretched strategy and more strategic objectives than would ever be possible;
    3. weak understanding of the environment in which the company operates, which is tied in third place with a weak understanding of the organization’s competitive advantage.

Underperforming strategy implementation or execution was characterized by a similarly complex set of issues:

1. cultural attitudes that impede cross-functional buy-in;
2. resource constraints, predominantly time and money made insufficiently prioritized and/or poorly managed;
3. inability to act quickly and in an agile way when strategies change or implementation plans go awry.

Here’s a fascinating (and perhaps unsurprising) anecdote encapsulating what can happen when strategy is poorly designed AND not holistically integrated with cross-functional delivery planning:

In a global food company I worked with, the new head of marketing
announced that 40 percent of the coming year’s revenue would be generated
from new product launches (edit: Strategy Design).

Nobody in the organization took her seriously because their new product launch efforts (edit: Strategy Delivery) had been failures for the past several years.

What their consumers really wanted was higher quality products with healthier ingredients in more convenient packaging. But she failed to learn the fundamental competitive dynamics of this segment of the food industry, so was defaulting to principles from her past experience in an entirely different market.

Too many executives fail to learn the basic competitive and financial context of their own organizations prior to assuming senior level jobs. One executive in our study confessed in his interview, “We all fake it till we make it.”

The Brightline Solution — A Great First Step

So how do leaders achieve the right balance? How do complex organizations, with competing corporate agendas and constantly shifting, disrupted marketplaces, avoid the pitfalls and dangers of both poor strategy design AND disconnected delivery?

Lead by Ricardo Viana Vargas, Brightline diligently gathered an internal SWAT team and a host of external academics, consultants, and experienced business leaders to identify 10 Guiding Principles for “bridging the gap” between strategy design and delivery. Listed below, they represent a powerful set of guardrails for organizational leaders to follow:

1. Integrate Delivery into Strategy Design — Implementation must be incorporated into how every strategic initiative is determined and agreed upon. Acknowledge that strategy delivery is just as important as strategy design.

2. Accountability + Responsibility — Strategy designers are accountable for delivering the strategy you design. You are accountable for proactively addressing emerging gaps and challenges that may impact delivery.

3. Secure Capabilities — Dedicate and mobilize the right resources. Assign the best leaders with sufficient capacity to tackle head-on the most challenging programs and those essential for successful strategy implementation.

4. Be Customer-First, Outside-In — Leverage insights on customers and competitors. Monitor customer needs, collect competitor insight, and monitor the market landscape for major risks, unknowns, and dependencies.

5. Focus + Simplicity — Be bold, stay focused on what matters to customers and stakeholders, and craft simple strategies that everyone can understand.
Surround yourself with simplifiers rather than complicators.

6. Share Goals + Ensure Cross-functional Collaboration— Promote team engagement and effective cross-business cooperation. Gain genuine buy-in from middle and line managers by engaging and activating them as strategy champions rather than just as managers and supervisors.

7. Decide + Respond. Fast. — Demonstrate bias toward decision-making and own the decisions you make. Commit to making strategic decisions rapidly. Move quickly to correct course, reprioritize, and remove roadblocks.

8. Check Existing Work Before Starting New — Evaluate ongoing initiatives before committing to new ones. Add new initiatives in response to new opportunities, but first be sure you understand both the existing portfolio and your organization’s capacity to deliver change.

9. Allow Fast Failure — Develop robust plans but allow for missteps — fail fast to learn fast. Empower program delivery teams to experiment and learn in an environment where it is safe to fail fast.

10. Recognize + Reward — Celebrate success and recognize those who have done good work. Actively shape a winning culture by engaging and exciting the people responsible for delivering strategic change programs. Publicly celebrate successes and quick wins.

Guiding Principles like these are smart. Each of them make sense — staying focused, responding fast, failing fast, integrating implementation planning into strategy design…they’re all must-haves and must-do’s.

The Way

Sounds great. LOVE these principles. Wish some of my former employers lived and breathed them. But most organizations don’t. Here’s a scenario so many leaders, particularly of B2C brands, find themselves confronting:

You are the COO (or CMO, or CCO) of a FMCG conglomerate with a portfolio of well-known brands — one in particular has been a category leader for decades. A year ago, however, a direct-to-consumer upstart figured out how to leverage Alexa (and its new portfolio of voice-activated devices for the home).

These are new commerce solutions YOUR CUSTOMERS are responding to; 9% of revenue from topline sales has been stripped away within 9 months.

Further, you’ve just read a forecast from your long-time business consultant (at McKinsey) indicating you’ll lose another 10% of market share within the next 12 months due to the better customer experience YOUR CUSTOMERS are beginning to flock to and promote through social channels (which your brand has not yet mastered).

Your brand team has developed what appears to be a strong strategic plan, but you have doubts they can pull it off quickly and with the resources currently at hand.

You might say to yourself, “Okay, I’ll work with our brand lead and her team to make sure they’ve considered the 10 Principles…my role is to make sure she doesn’t make the mistakes that sink 90% of strategic plan objectives.” Following this up is easy —align each strategic initiative with the 10 Principles, and we’re covered.

“Strategy 1 — get real on voice-activation, bring it to people in their homes, enable them to buy directly from us. If we put this strategy at the center of the Brightline Principles, our teams will understand what they have to do and how to do it.” Here’s what that would look like:

A great first step, Ms. COO.

10 Guiding Principles, however, will only get her so far. Why? Because they are exactly that: guidelines. She’ll need to go deeper, do more work. There are three problems with stopping at simply overlaying the Brightline Guiding Principles on top of — or astride — strategic initiatives (strategies):

Strategies have more than one dimension
Big corporate objectives are not static things, they must be considered in a continuum of time and motion — the current state of the strategy AND what it will be like in an ideal future state. We need a framework that shows how (and what’s required) to advance each strategy from its current state to its nirvana state; here’s what that would look like:

Ideal Future State is the “stake in the ground” that enables the entire organization to understand what the outcome of aligning to a big strategy means today, in the current state. Defined here as a single metric, everyone will now when the threshold is achieved.

Framing the big strategy in the context of the Ideal Future State provides context for what needs to be done now, and over time, and what the outcome of it looks like. But…there’s another step. Or two…

Value is not addressed
Big corporate strategies only have meaning when they are aligned tightly to creating and capturing real business value (and better customer outcomes), which is often a metric (or several) or a new position in the marketplace; we need a framework that shows how each individual tactical initiative is linked to each over-arching strategy, which in turn must be linked to its impact on revenue, cost savings, and risk reduction.

Modeling value — what it is and how it’s created and captured — isn’t reflected in the Brightline Guiding Principles. It’s reflected here in our Ideal Future State metric (e.g., 40% profit), so we understand how it drives to Revenue. But what other outcomes does the strategy drive? What capabilities are required to make

We also need the “why” and “what”
Brightline’s Principles are about “how” the doing gets done well; but they don’t define or determine “what” needs to get done to achieve each strategic objective and to create and capture value.

Sure, ensuring that delivery on strategic initiatives is baked into strategy design (e.g., bridging the gap) requires that everyone stays focused, that leaders check existing work before starting new projects, and that achievers are recognized — they’re operational guard rails for how to do the work of executing on strategy. But leaders need more than guard rails, they need a framework that illustrates what needs to get done and how.

Something like this:

This rudimentary visual blends Brightline’s 10 Guiding Principles into a more actionable system for 1. ensuring great strategy isn’t let down by delivery plans that are disconnected from strategy design; 2. creating strategies that are defined over time and linked to value capture and creation; and 3. the requirements for getting all the work done cross-functionally are identified and mapped.

Our COO now has the architecture to move her big ecommerce strategy forward. She can align the organization to a common vision and goal (e.g., achieve the 40% profit threshold), show how that goal creates real business value, and map the resources and capabilities needed (e.g., from people, processes, technologies, and cultural initiatives) to get it all done — AND, she has a set of guidelines for HOW leaders approach designing a big strategy and defining how it needs to operate (e.g., the Brightline Principles).

These simple diagrams are just that, simple. We know the real world is more complex. But, don’t fool yourself, the same principles apply — your organization needs an architecture for every big thing you’re trying to do so that everyone operates off the same planning and execution roadmap. You’d never build a house without a blueprint; why would you not design one for all the big things your company needs to do and achieve? You wouldn’t.

Next Step — A Transformation System

The Brightline Guiding Principles are brilliant. They were produced holistically, from surveys of business leaders in dozens of industries, academics who’ve studied the problem deeply, and real-world case studies of success and failure.

They are essential to ensuring your executive team does not make the mistake of under-prioritizing delivery when designing big strategic initiatives. To be fully actionable in a fast-moving, turbulent, transitional world, Guiding Principles are not enough on their own. They need the context of time and maturity, value creation, and deeper operational rigor.

My partner-in-crime and mentor Tom Butta (now CMO of SignalFx, a Splunk company) and I created a system for corporate transformation (e.g., digital, social, purpose) for our former employer and friends at Sprinklr. The system is comprised of many of the same kinds of frameworks outlined above. This visual represents a birdseye view of how Sprinklr helped large enterprise brands understand the journey to becoming a truly customer-first organization:

Individual models show What’s Possible (e.g., how value is created and captured), What You Need (e.g., which capabilities are required for the journey across People, Processes, Technologies, and Culture), Where You Are and What’s Nex (e.g., identifying current and ideal states), Validating the Investment (e.g., metrics and other specific measures of ROI), and other models that help Decide What To Do Next (e.g., models that illustrate functional roles and technology systems).

Together, these models act as a comprehensive system that achieves the following outcomes: teams are aligned cross-functionally, the pace of activity is accelerated, and value is created in terms that impact the business. If you’re interested in learning more about how the system can help you, ping me directly.

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