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Famous strategy fails No. 4: “What we thought was strategy turned out to be an own goal”


Almost invariably, when I ask a team what problem they’re trying to solve, they’ll instead express an outcome or output.

I’ll typically hear things like: “We want to increase sales revenue by 20%”, or “We need a marketing campaign”.

But here’s a fact that’s as useful as it is simple: the starting point for effective agile strategy-making is having a meaningful problem to solve.

Take those examples as cases in point.

Yes, a 20% lift in sales revenue does solve a business problem – if the current level of revenue is creating one. Likewise a marketing campaign can be an effective way to solve a business problem, but it’s a waste of precious resource if the problem it’s designed to solve isn’t meaningful. (Just in case I haven’t made my point: “We don’t have a marketing campaign” is not a meaningful business problem.)

When “strategy” is not actually strategy

A lift in sales isn’t a strategy, it’s a goal.

A marketing campaign is neither a strategy nor a goal, it’s a tactic.

Since strategy sits between goals and tactics we can describe it as the intelligent design of tactics to give an organization its best chance of achieving its goals.

It’s agile if it:

  • focuses on solving problems that are real and meaningful in the sense that they represent a quantifiable impediment to success

  • defines the smartest possible way forward – that is, the least investment for the greatest return, based on everything that’s knowable now (because let’s face it: so much isn’t)

  • continues to evolve, based on reliable feedback and data, and therefore remains relevant and applicable.

Here’s what I find curious. You’d think the most difficult of these three to get right would be defining the smartest way forward. And yet in all my experience of facilitating strategic planning, the greatest struggle I’ve observed is people’s ability to articulate the problems the organization is working to solve. Even at the highest levels of leadership.

Seriously, ask yourself the question right now: “What are the meaningful business problems my key people are focused on solving?”

Now give yourself a pat on the back if you answered it accurately without asking any of them, and jump right to the next article in the series.

Still here, huh? (You’re in good company, I promise.)

Well then, how’s about we talk about why this describing problems thing is so much more difficult than you’d logically expect? Turns out there’s some good science around our capacity to deny fact, and a related propensity for “motivated reasoning”— believing what we want to believe. But I also encounter a discomforting amount of old-school business-cultural thinking that contributes this phenomenon. Thinking like:

  • talking about problems makes them worse

  • the presence of problems implies failure

  • talking about problems is just being negative.

Yet we all know that the first step in solving any problem is acknowledging that it exists.

So it really is this simple: if you want your strategy to actually be strategic, get better at ferreting out and defining the problems that are limiting your business’s success.

And if you want it to be agile – and you know you do! – go ferreting more regularly, more courageously, and with more inputs from your internal and external feedback and data sources.

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