Good Strategy

Strategy Image
Strategic Plan

A weak definition of strategy.

The modern definition of 'strategy' is straight forward: A plan of action designed to achieve something.

Nobody wants to spend weeks, or tens of thousands of dollars, on a to-do list that is largely ignored after the expensive strategic planning process. The element that's missing from the definition is the leverage, the success factor that makes a strategy good.

What is it about one set of actions versus another, or in light of the real-worl challenges you face, that makes a strategy compelling and more likely to succeed?

67% of 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 In a 2009 survey (so a bit outdated) after survying 1,546 business executives McKinsey & Company reported that 70 percent of change programs fail to achieve their goals, largely due to employee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

Bad strategy can be the result miscalculation. The reality is that government and business leaders are dealing with complex problems and many competing forces. We are not always going to get it right every 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.

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

– Richard Rumelt

The core of strategy is identifying and solving problems. It is a hypothesis that can be tested and refined over time. Designing a good strategy – like designing a policy, program, product or solution – requires a good process, one that engages a diverse group of people from the designer to the "end user".

You need to understand the context and ask good questions in a process that allows you to aggregate ideas into a coherent collective picture. 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.
Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) Enteric Outbreak Response Process
CRTC's E-Commerce Enforcement Plan
CRTC's Anti Spam Legislation (CASL) Enforcement Process
Use of a Smart Regulatory Code for Aquaculture
CSTD Regulatory Modernization Roadmap
Retail Sector Competitiveness System Dynamics Model