Why your strategy fails, and what you should do instead

Author - Thomas Phillipsen. Senior Leadership Consultant

The mood after the meeting of the governing board is sky-high.

The last two hours they have been discussing a proposal from the marketing department about which areas in the customer survey to put into action.

The preparations have been thorough including solid business cases, well-developed KPIs, and responsible personnel for the various initiatives.

Everybody is exited and is looking forward to seeing the revolutionary effects.

Five months later, the mood in the board room has been turned upside down.

The new customer strategy did not work as expected at all.

Despite clear plans, ongoing communication, and dedicated responsible personnel the work is not moving forward and there is no direction.

The KPIs show that the customers do not sense any difference, and it feels like business has become even heavier and more complicated than before.

The frustrations are quite tangible.


Organizational changes often miss the target

Most businesses experience how hard it can be to change direction and make the organization do things differently going forward.

At Ennova, it is our experience that more and more businesses ask for assistance and sparring to have successful transformations. To make things happen all the way out there where the customers and the colleagues feel it.

In other words, to contribute to create the prerequisites for the actual success of the organization and the individual employee.

Naturally, it is difficult to point to solutions that can be carried out in a heartbeat when we are dealing with organizational transformations.

The primary reason is that organizations are complex entities where the ratio between influence and effect only rarely is 1:1.

Hence, transformations rarely follow the original plan.

The strategy is over-emphasized

An important mistake that the management committed in my example was that they put far too much emphasis on the strategy, understood as the overall plan including the selected KPIs and structural changes.

It is a common mistake that we expect that a well thought out strategy will take us half-way to the goal, and all we need to do is to implement it.

Unfortunately, it does not work that way.

According to behavioral designers the mistake was that the management was not sufficiently detailed when describing what the employees were supposed to do differently.

And there are many advantages to starting with specific experiences.

But the reality of organizations is often so complex that the management can never really figure out up front what is the right thing to do in any given situation. It would be much too extensive.

Hence, by default, strategies have to be general and abstract.

Reality is always specific

But that does not change that reality is always 100 percent concrete.

It is about real persons who deal with real customers and partners in real time in real situations together with specific others.

Therefore, your organization is also full of paradoxical demands, opposing intentions and interests that you cannot consider 100 percent up front when working with strategic transformations.

It may sound trivial but it does have a huge impact.

It is often difficult to follow the strategic intentions in practice for these concrete people in the rest of your organization.

Even if they have familiarized themselves with the strategy in detail and understand the intentions behind it.

Despite all the thorough strategic preparations you did the intended change does not come through. Or it does in a different way than you expected.

A realistic picture of strategies

Does this mean that you should drop formulating strategies since they cannot be realized after all?

Of course not!

Strategies and plans are valuable.

For example, they contribute to reducing the insecurity that results from being many people trying to accomplish something together.

But it is important to be more realistic about what strategies really are and may accomplish.

In other words, you have to realize that

  • plans and strategies do not create change, and that
  • you cannot control organizational change

A more realistic way of looking at strategies is to view them as linguistic actions.

When you present a new strategy or a new initiative it affects the discussions that take place in the concrete reality within the organization.

If you did your home work well, your employees in general have trust in you, and you can present your ideas in an engaging way, you can set an agenda.

This agenda will enable new discussions and actions - that is, changes - within your organization.

But if you just go back to your office believing that now the strategy has been launched and all that is missing is for it to take effect, you will often be disappointed.

Because, in reality, this is where your work really starts.

If the transformation was a party, the presentation of the strategy would be your welcome speech. And, as we all know, it takes more than a good welcome to make a good party.

You are a participant like everybody else

If we stay with the party analogy we see another important issue.

The host can prepare everything in the best possible way to make a good, cozy, and fun party. The host carefully chooses the facilities, the food, arranges music, prepares the seating chart, and writes the welcome speech.

But when the party has been started with the welcome speech, the host participates just like everybody else.

After that, the host can only contribute to the party through his/her own participation together with everybody else and try to make the party as good, cozy and fun as possible.

Of course, it becomes completely absurd, if the host halfway through the party interrupts the music to say

“You are not having enough fun. Have more fun! You have to show a little more effort”.

Just as this approach does little to make the party better, it does little to benefit the organizational change if you just increase pressure on managers and employees.

It rarely has a positive influence on the underlying factors that limit the organizational transformation/the mood at the party.

On the contrary, you have to rethink the possibilities you have for influencing the organization. As a leader, you are first and foremost a participant in the organization.

Just like the host of the party, managers have a series of special prerequisites for participating. Your words and your actions have relatively great potential for impacting what happens in the organization.

However, the effects will always be more or less unpredictable, and hence, it is impossible to control or direct an organizational change.

This can be difficult to accept if you are used to seeing yourself as somebody who is in control, and if you think that your job is to realize plans and create the future.

Go meet real employees in real situations

At the end of the day, you must continuously encounter real employees in real situations - planned and spontaneous - and involve yourself in discussions that will slowly change what your employees actually do and say.

Or, as the British organizational theorist, Ralph Stacey explains:

”…all that everyone can do, no matter how powerful, is to continue participating with intention and continually negotiate and respond to others who are also intentionally doing the same”

You have to realize your own limitations and give up control.

instead you have to strive to manage rather than to be in control. You should thoughtfully and intentionally participate to the best of your ability. Your job always has two sides.

On one hand, you are supposed to set the overall direction for the transformation. At the same time you must be listening and constantly engaging in conversations with your employees and managers about the reality while it takes place.

You must understand that every interruption and every meeting presents a chance to become more informed about how your employees and managers actually work, and how they understand and implement the strategic direction.

When you involve yourself in this way, you have the opportunity to influence the organization but you will never be able to control exactly where the organization will end up.

Thomas Phillipsen. Senior Leadership Consultant

Thomas Phillipsen. Senior Leadership Consultant

Thomas Phillipsen is Senior Leadership Consultant, Business Psychologist, at Ennova’s Leadership and Team Development department and has over 10 years’ experience promoting organizational development based on data. Thomas is responsible for working with data-based change processes, management leadership development and support for low-scoring units, and he is particularly dedicated towards making change processes as useful and long-lasting as possible.