Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet, may well have been describing contemporary strategy execution when he wrote, “The best laid plans of mice and men go oft awry.” In fact, according to recent research, as many 67% of all carefully constructed strategies fail thanks to ineffective or poor execution by an organization’s leaders and executives. Ron Carucci, in an article in the Harvard Business Review, explores why the success rate for strategy execution success is worse than a coin flip and outlines four reasons why leaders are unable to implement strategic change at an enterprise level.
Lack of Exposure or Experience
Perhaps counterintuitively, as leaders climb the organizational ladder, they are forced to shift their focus further and further within the organization. One recent study noted that 85% of leaders spend as little as one hour per month discussing strategy. As a result, when it comes time to set a new strategy, these leaders can be woefully out of touch with their competitors and customers and with seriously atrophied strategic muscles. This may lead them to set unrealistic goals, whether they realize this or not, and thus set up the new plan for failure.
Failing to Balance Trade-Offs
Ultimately, strategic decisions are zero-sum: choosing to invest in a particular product or focus on a particular market demographic means discarding and abandoning others. Leaders may be disinclined to make such definitive decisions, so they consequently develop strategies that avoid these hard choices and try to keep every possible option or initiative on the table. Strategies like these lack focus, and since they don’t articulate clear priorities by virtue of taking aim at every opportunity, leaders and departments can’t make effective decisions on resource allocation and therefore dooming strategic execution.
Leaving Old Structures in Place
A new strategy needs new organizational structures and new processes, so when old structures are left in place, successful execution becomes much more difficult. Designing and launching these structures can be a tall order, especially for leaders who only have experience working in similarly-arranged departments.
Underestimating Emotional Strain
Managing organizational or enterprise transformations can leave leaders feeling like they’re carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders, but they don’t necessarily put that weight down once they leave the office. These projects are incredibly stressful and can spur feelings of isolation, anxiety, and conflict. Leaders should be wary of the “off the court” side-effects implicit to spearheading organizational change.