Skip to content
Why Do Strategies Fail?

November 12, 2020


Why Do Strategies Fail?

What IS Strategy (and Why Do So Many Fail)?

We’ve talked a lot about strategy, strategic plans, and how brands have had to be flexiblewith their strategic planning this year. We’ve looked at why strategy, in particular, is so important in a year that’s full of upheaval and challenges.

But we haven’t stopped to consider the bigger question: what is strategy anyway? We can talk about it until we’re blue in the face, but it won’t help us create good strategic plans if we don’t have a solid definition to work from.

So, what is strategy? What are we actually talking about, and what’s the difference between a successful strategy and a failed plan?

Strategy vs. Plan

If we look to the dictionary, it will tell us that a strategy is a carefully developed plantowards achieving a goal. We can find other definitions that agree with that assessment too:

"Strategy is making a plan. That's it. Now, a good plan has several elements, including clearly stated goals, how those goals will be evaluated, knowledge of the best ways to accomplish those goals, and contingencies. But it's still just: making a plan."

And, in a lot of ways, strategy is just a plan. But the key is that strategy is carefully developed. That means, in my mind, strategy needs to be more comprehensive, more complete than a plan.

It also means strategy is usually a longer-term plan. This isn’t something we can tackle in a couple of hours or even a couple of days. Strategy takes longer to percolate, to filter through our organizations and our brands. It’s something that, when we do it right, ends up embedded at the cellular level of our brands.

Strategy as Focus

Some other definitions of strategy move away from the idea of a “plan” and focus more on the goal. Some experts have said a strategy is “deciding what you should do, out of all the things you could do.” Others have said it’s “letting go of 99 things out of 100.”

In that way, strategy becomes more focused. Instead of worrying about all the things we could do or might do, we develop a strategy that tells us what we’re going to do. We get rid of the noise—those 99 other options—to zero in on the one option we think will move us in the right direction.

In that sense, I agree with this definition: “strategy is just a fancy word for focus.”

Strategy as Direction

We can also think of strategy as less about the goal (our focus) and more as a way of moving forward. Once we’ve picked the goal we want to focus on, strategy informs how we get there.

We can look to Douglas Holt and Douglas Cameron’s definition: “Strategy is a blueprint that guides action.”

It’s not so much a plan as it is a decision-making guidebook. As another expert put it, “It’s the how in how we make it happen.”

So strategy is less about the goal and more about the actions we take. The strategic plan tells us less about the goal itself or what we want to achieve, and more about how to achieve it.

Beyond that, we can use it to inform our thinking. There’s a reason we can call strategic plans “roadmaps.” They show us where we want to go, yes, but they also show us the paths we can take to get there.

Strategy as Advantage

Finally, we can also look at strategy as a sort of advantage. Having a strategy is an advantage, in some ways, because it’s a way of giving ourselves an edge.

By developing the strategy, we’re working towards a future competitive advantage. If we want to build customer goodwill and trust, then we’ll develop a strategy that helps us achieve the goal.

In the future, the customer trust we’ve built up will give us an advantage over our competitors. Our customers will turn to us because they trust us. They’ll recommend us to their friends and family, because they trust us to deliver. And in turn, those referrals will become customers too.

So: strategy is a future competitive advantage. As Mark Pollard says, “strategy is an informed opinion about how to win.”

That’s where I say strategy is more than just a “plan” or even a blueprint. It’s long-term thinking towards a goal. And it has to be carefully developed—often by looking at insights.

Why Most Strategies Don’t Work

A lot of seemingly well-developed and careful strategies don’t work out. People may not put a lot of stock in strategy for that reason. And in some organizations, the brand strategy changes with the new senior leader. And ultimately, with each change….there is less impact as the strategy or how is not reflecting the brand essence. Eventually and none too often, strategies stop working and brands start to slip. 

Some people point the finger at a lack of execution. Some senior brand leaders will spend a lot of time coming up with these elaborate strategies. They talk big talk. And then they go right back to doing what they were doing before. That’s a lack of implementation.

 But execution can also be perfect and sales slip which hints at the execution perhaps failing to reflect the DNA of the brand.

With many leadership changes or short-term volume decisions, the strategy may no longer jive with the brand. Often a new CEO comes in and says, “We want to take the brand in this direction.” The strategy they lay out is almost the polar opposite of what customers want or expect from the brand. Even if the strategy is executed flawlessly, it’s pretty much bound to fail.

In other cases, the strategy matches the brand’s DNA. The problem is the team implementing it is ignoring the brand’s DNA. That might be because the strategy is contrary to what they think they know. It maybe goes against conventional wisdom or “best practices” or “what we’ve always done.”

It’s difficult to get to a goal if people won’t follow the map; you’re going to get lost.

Strategies That Aren’t Strategies

There’s also the issue of strategy that isn’t really strategy at the core. A plan might look like a strategy, but it’s actually a plan.

What’s the difference? The strategy, goes down to the DNA of the brand. A plan looks similar, but it doesn’t touch that core. It can’t guide you through a challenge or give you a blueprint for decision-making.

A strategy can. So, strategy lets you answer the question, “What would our brand do in this situation?” A plan looks like a strategy, because it says “do this”—even when “this” is the wrong answer!

The Most Important Elements of Strategy

Lots of people put the focus on the goal of a strategy. “Where do we want to be in five years?” “What do we want to accomplish?”

That’s not a bad thing, but it’s not the most important part of your strategy—which is another reason so many people end up with plans, not strategies. “If we do X and Y, then we’ll get to Z.”

Instead, we should be looking at what’s actually informing our strategies. Revelation is actually the key to a good strategy. We need to engage with our best customers, to figure out where our brand is already positioned (or where we could position ourselves) and then work from there.

That’s a mix of recognition—where we are right now—and revelation—where we shouldbe going, according to our customers.

When we look at this piece, strategy should become organic. Strategies that don’t mesh with our brand DNA usually arise from teams that aren’t paying attention to where we are or aren’t looking at where we should be going.

That’s why these strategies end up not working. We’re not paying attention to where we stand right now, so we end up trying to force the brand to grow in an unnatural way. Or we’re trying to get where we think we should go, without actually listening to the people telling us what the shortest way up the mountain is. We end up driving the brand the long-way ‘round or even right off a cliff.

When we pause to take stock of where we are—listen to our best customers—that path becomes more obvious. And then we can build strategies that take us in that direction, that that framework enables the “how” to deliver the brand’s DNA.

A strategy is still, at the end of the day, a kind of plan—a roadmap, a guideline, a blueprint. But it’s the kind of plan we can rely on long-term, the kind of plan that’s carefully thought out and developed and informed by our brands, our customers, and what’s actually going on around us.

Anyone can make a plan. Crafting a strategy takes more. And crafting the right one, always, should start with the why!


Here to inspire!

I am a business person who has excelled in driving a competitive edge through marketing, strategy, innovation, building irresistible brands and unlocking the genius that exists. I am writing is inspire or create new consideration. If you have ideas or questions that you would like me to put a pen too, I would be delighted.

I would also be grateful if you shared this or any of the articles I have written to inspire others.

Connect With Us

We work with companies around the world. Our offices are located in Caledon, Ontario, Canada, minutes from Pearson International Airport.

We post articles, white papers, and videos through social media a few times a week. We aim to inspire. Please follow us at:

click to copy
click to call

365 © 2023 All Rights Reserved

Privacy Policy