Good Strategy

A good strategy, a real strategy, diagnoses a problem your team is capable of going to work on. It constrains activities to focus on specific problems and approaches. It identifies a coherent and cohesive set of actions. It identifies your leverage - the logic that articulates why and how your team is capable of addressing the problem.

Strategy Image
Strategic Plan

A weak definition of strategy.

People throw the word strategy around a lot. Some organizations spend a lot of time and money building strategies. A lot of people hate the idea of strategy because it ends up being a laundry list of wishes and goals.

Strategy, and strategic planning, is not a simple definition. It's a design process, it's a continuous proces of prioritization and evaluation. And the element that is often missing from the definition is the leverage - the logic that articulates why and how your team is capable of addressing the problem.

What is it about one set of actions versus another that will help you achieve your intended results? What is that your team has the power to influence, in context of all of the internal and external forces pushing against you, that will have the biggest impact on your objectives?

Most Strategies "Fail"

Bridges Business Consultancy has been conducting a survey on strategy for the last 14 years. The latest engaged 144 leaders (92% from C-suite) businesses.

Various sources can show you that 60-90% of startups fail within the first few years (Pic #1, Pic #2). In a 2009 survey (so a bit outdated) after survying 1,546 business executives McKinsey & Company reported that 70 percent of change programs fail to achieve their goals, largely due to employee resistance and lack of management support.

We also know that business and government continue 'as usual' despite these failure rates – through effort, overtime, debt, and because the majority of their competitiion are performing at the same level of mediocrity.

A cube with the sides labelled: strategy, execution, results, measured.
A cube with the sides labelled: strategy, execution, results, measured.

Plans Can't Replace Strategies.

Harvard Business Review explores some of the failures of strategic planning in their article the big lie of strategic planning. They write" The subtle slide from strategy to planning occurs because planning is a thoroughly doable and comfortable exercise"

Government departments need some form of strategy which often include or reference their logic models, program activity architectures, etc. Many businesses have some sort of strategic plan (even if it is only an articulation of a broad set of goals and objectives.

Bad Strategy

Business and government teams deal with complex problems and many competing forces. We are not always going to get it right. A failed strategy can be the result of miscalculation. Failure is a big part of succes. What makes it "bad" is that strategic plans immediately become static documents that represent a "thing we did" at one point in time. If a strategy isn't a living thing that is continually shaping and being reshaped by your work, it's going to be a bad strategy most of the time.

Bad strategy is also (more often) the result of a failure to commit the time and effort to developing a good strategy, and a failure in leadership to make hard choices between competing values and risks or to favour positive thinking versus brutal realism.

Richard Rumelt's book "Good strategy Bad Strategy" (with a nice summary posted by Jeff Zych here) explores some of the key elements of good and bad strategy. He identifies the following four hallmarks of a bad strategy:

A cube with the sides labelled: strategy, execution, results, measured.


It’s a confusion between strategy and visions, values, goals, objectives, and motivational talks. superficial restatements of the obvious combined with a generous sprinkling of buzzwords. Fluff masquerades as expertise, thought and analysis.

Failure to Face a Problem

A strategy is a way through a difficulty, a response to a challenge. If the challenge is not defined, it is difficult or impossible to develop a good strategy. If you fail to identify and analyze the obstacles, you dont have a strategy. You have a goal or a wishlist.

Mistaking Goals for Strategy

Describing a destination is no substitute for a real strategy on how to get there. Visions, missions and goals are a part of the strategic planning process, best served by developing a comprehensive strategy that allows your teams to be agile and adaptive as things evolve.

A Laundry List

Blue sky objectives are oversimplified statements. A long list of “things to do” where teams discuss what they need to accomplish, throw the initiatives onto a long list called a “strategic plan” and apply the label “long-term” to anything that doesn't need to be done in the next month.

The top reasons that bad strategies and poor strategic planning processes fail:
  • Lack of people alignment and collaboration
  • No clear direction/goals
  • Unmotivated to participate
  • Lack of resources
  • Poor communication
  • Feel unsafe changing culture
  • Lack of leadership
  • Unwilling to change
  • Corruption in the system
  • Politics and conflicts
  • Lack of support from the board
  • Multiple stakeholders
  • Strategy is not consistent
  • Lack of buy-in
  • Issues linking tactical ops with strategic objectives
  • Why change from what we always do
  • Lack of clarity
  • Rigid, historical mindset
  • Poor measures
  • Gaining traction at the start
  • Not making deadlines
  • Lack of alignment across the businesses
  • Poor follow up
  • Lack of time
  • Lack of budget
  • Getting everyone on the same page
Strategic Plan

A good strategy is based on three principles:

A good diagnosis is critical. You need to simplify the overwhelming complexity of reality to articulate the central or critical aspects of a situation.

Leverage. Rumfelt describes the second principle as a "guiding policy" that governs the overall approach chosen to overcome the challenges identified in the diagnosis. For us, the root of this is leverage. You need to understand what levers of change will work for your organization facing a specific set of challenges.

Coherent and cohesive actions and resources needed to alter how your team operates to address them. These are feasible steps, resource commitments, actions that are coordinated with one another to work together to move your levers.

Visual representation of Complexity

Good strategy is difficult.

It is ultimately about the “fit” between external forces (the client or customer, market forces, competition, etc) the leadership and decision-making that chooses your course of action, and the internal team activities doing the work. Which means:

  • An uncountable number of events and external forces impact the system you are working in.
  • Indicators of opportunities or risks are buried in a few weak signals in a noisy environment.
  • It is difficult to think beyond a handful of the many possible alternatives and probabilities.
  • Your organization has it’s own internal complexity that is challenging to understand, predict, and change over time.

How To Design A Good Strategy.

Designing a good strategy requires a good process, one that engages a diverse group of people from the designer to the "end user", to produce a coherent and cohesive set of actions that represent "hypothesis" of how you can achieve some sort of change. Like any hypothesis, it is something that can be tested and refined over time.

Designing a good strategy is a process you repeat, review and redo - turning ideas and problems into solutions people want that you are capable of delivering.

A bar and line chart depicting the categorical grouping of many ideas.

"Good strategy is design, and design is about fitting pieces together so they work as a coherent whole."

– Richard Rumelt

Your Business Is A System

Understanding how the pieces affect each other is the key to successful growth and change.

Business as a system: Many small parts coming together to create a whole picture.