Saturday, November 12, 2016

Why Most Strategies Fail: Reason #3


I recently saw a blog by the Cascade strategy software company entitled “The 5 Reasons Why 70% of Strategies Fail.” You can read it here.

Since I disagree with their conclusions, I decided to write my own blogs on why strategies fail. I came up with three major reasons. The first reason why most strategies fail is because they are too internally focused at the expense of an external orientation. I covered that topic in the first blog.

The second major reason why strategies fail is because they focus too much on “doing” rather than “being.” That was covered in the second blog on this topic.

The third reason I feel most strategies fail is because they fall victim to the “Tyranny of the Immediate.”

I feel so strongly about the evils in the tyranny of the immediate that on my blog site you can see links to 15 other blog entries I have done on the topic. In fact, I wrote an entire book on the topic which you can download for free here.

What is the Tyranny of the Immediate
So what is the tyranny of the immediate? Think of it as the daily fires at your business which demand your immediate attention.  It could be something like an angry customer, or a production line mistake, or a disgruntled employee, or a bad report in the media. Not a single one of these types of minor crises will permanently cripple your business. So why see them as a major source of strategic failure?

The reason is because there are so many of them. Executives typically encounter at least one of them a day. If the executive is not disciplined, he or she will find themselves totally consumed with putting out the fire of the day.  And therein lies the tyranny. We become captive to their demands on our time every single day. If getting the immediate crisis resolved captures too much of our time, then there is no time left for long term strategy.

In a sense, any strategy is worthless and bound to fail if people in the organization are such a prisoner to the tyranny of the immediate that nobody has enough time to adequately put the strategy into practice.

Successful Strategies Take Time
In the classic strategy book “Competing for the Future,” Prahalad and Hamel say:

“As a benchmark, our experience suggests that to develop a prescient and distinctive point of view about the future, a senior management team must be willing to spend about 20 to 50% of its time, over a period of several months. It must then be willing to continually revisit that point of view, elaborating and adjusting it as the future unfolds.”

Unfortunately, Hamel and Prahalad’s research found that most executives spend less than 3% of their time to building that corporate perspective of the future. It is no wonder that strategies fail when so little time is devoted to them. And in my opinion, the tyranny of the immediate is the biggest culprit causing so little time to be devoted to this core act of strategy.

Tripped Up By Distractions
That is why I wrote the book “Tripped Up by Distractions.” I wanted people to see all the subtle ways in which time and effort are stolen away from doing the work of strategy. They may only look like minor distractions, but when you add them up they can rob us of the time needed to do strategy properly. Until we tackle the distractions, we cannot build successful strategies.

In the book, I identify five major sources of distractions:
  1. Having our head down looking at individual numbers so much that we lose sight of the big picture; 
  2. Sending so much time trying to produce perfect documents or in trying to check off the items on the documents that we don’t have time to anticipate and adjust to realities surrounding us.
  3. Putting the wrong people in the wrong places doing the wrong things.
  4. Getting so focused on accumulating money today that there is no time left to strategize about how to build an enduring money-making enterprise.
  5. Spending so much time reacting to change that there is no time to anticipate change and build a strategy to take advantage of change.

Some of these look at first like innocent activities. But when you add these issues to the normal crises of the day, you can see why companies have a tendency to spend insufficient time on building and executing a good strategy.

The book then has three major recommendations of better ways to spend one’s time:
  1. Spend more time asking questions. If you ask the right questions, you can more efficiently get to the root of what is strategically important.
  2. Spend more time on broad issues rather than narrow crises. If you get the big issues right, a lot of the daily crises disappear.
  3. Change your actions. Not all activity is equally productive in tackling strategy effectively. If you keep doing what you did before (falling victim to the tyranny of the immediate), don’t expects your outcomes to get any better.

Warning Signs that Your Strategy is on a Path to Failure
So, what are the warning signs that one is falling victim to the tyranny of the immediate?
First, do a time study of what your executives do. Is core strategy work closer to Hamel and Prahalad’s ideal of 20 to 50% or is it closer to their findings of less than 3%? The lower the number, the harder it is to build and execute a successful strategy.

Second, look at what your company chooses to put as top priority regarding where time is spent. What do people get most in trouble for if they don’t spend time on it? What are the consequences if someone spends too little time on strategy? People will spend the time on that which they perceive management wants them to spend time on. Send the right message. Reward good strategic behavior. 
Punish those who fall victim to the tyranny of the immediate.

Third, is strategy work treated like a real job or more like a hobby you do on the side in your spare time? If there is never enough time in the day to do your day job, how can you expect much from tasks relegated to doing in your spare time? If you truly believe that designing and executing the right strategy is the difference between long-term success and failure, then intentionally carve out time for it. Have people on staff for whom this is their full-time responsibility Make at least some of the strategic work the day job of people.

Finally, how well do your executives delegate the little crises so that time is freed up for the work of strategy? If delegation is not occurring, then strategic work is not occurring either.


Depending on which study you look at, somewhere between 60% and 90% of strategies fail. If we don’t address the deep-seated reasons why strategies fail, we will not be able to raise the percentage of strategic successes. I believe that there are three major reasons why strategies fail and my reasons do not always agree with conventional wisdom. The third reason I believe most strategies fail is because not enough time is being spent on the subject. Real success occurs when a company takes the time to get strategy right and keep it relevant. Without a proactive commitment to spend the time it takes to get strategy right, the tyranny of the immediate and a whole host of other distractions will get in the way. If your strategy is a half-hearted effort barely worked on to accomplish, you will get what you deserve: failure.


Thomas Jefferson said, “All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.” As a strategist, it is your responsibility to be noisy and fight so that the crisis of the day and other such distractions do not become tyranny to your organization.

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