Why Strategies Suck

Avoiding mistakes, malignancies, and malpractice in crafting strategy

I called it “more of an unrealistic shopping list than a strategy.” The document’s principal writer was a super person, and so I felt not-so-great in deploying those harsh words. 

The hard part about hard words is when they’re aimed at a good person. That’s really the problem here. It’s not about the strategy. The strategy sucks. It’s that the person behind the strategy is so often a great guy or gal. 

It takes time to develop the callouses required in critiquing strategy. But when you’ve hardened those hands, there’s no turning back. The world needs strategy-critics just as much as it needs strategy-crafters. There’s a necessary balance between these crafters and critics. If we fell out of balance, we’d be doomed to terrifyingly bad strategies forever. 

The first failure is always strategy that’s boring. Yes, boring. It’s actually boring to raise the boring issue of boring strategy. Yet it is so widespread that we don’t even notice anymore that most strategies are printed Ambien (as author Max Brooks likes to say). 

The problem with boring strategies is they’re too boring for anyone to read. If they’re not read, they’re not synchronizing behavior. If they’re not synchronizing behavior, then they’re not strategy. 

Next week we’ll take on making strategies readable and remarkable, but first we need to break down why strategies suck. There are at least four broad categories of suckiness—four major mistakes that send strategies into four Black Holes, never to be heard from again.

1. “Make A Wish” strategy.

The “Make A Wish” strategy is malignant malpractice. It’s deluded. It denies reality. It bases strategy on what you’d like to have as opposed to what you have right now.

For example, the rest of my critique on the “unrealistic shopping list” (above) somehow worsened. A selection of comments:

·      “Maybe if those [assets] were scheduled to come online soon I’d be more onboard. But since they aren’t, and not likely to be switched on for some time, I think their inclusion is actually a dangerous mirage that ducks serious strategic thought.”

·      “[This is] all dependent on buying stuff, and shopping isn’t strategy. Strategy is built with what you have, now.”

·      “It’s like we’re saying a really neat tech will solve all our problems. That’s actually dangerous to your [employees] in that it outsources initiative (i.e., ‘I don’t really have to do anything different because this cool-new-widget we’ll buy will do everything for us to succeed.’). If strategy is meant to provide guidance, a compass heading for your subordinates—a shopping-strategy isn’t helpful.”

Strategy can’t stand on mythical savior widgets. It’s as unhelpful as it is unbelievable.  

2. Irrational/illogical strategy. 

Spock wouldn’t approve. This is strategy that just doesn’t make sense. Nonsense strategy comes in a variety of forms. One is circular reasoning—we’ll get to Mars by traveling to Mars, or we’ll defend Edmonton by protecting Edmonton. 

Another is to use ridiculous ways or methods of achieving some objective. If your goal is to get to Timbuktu, then the way you intend to get there can’t be teleportation. 

Strategy must provide clear guidance, grounded in reality. It may push the bounds of possibility, but it cannot exceed those bounds. Strategy must be believable.

3. Strategy without priority. Strategy without choice.

This flaw is common to big bureaucracies. The quiet, but unmistakable chorus goes like this: We can’t cut a single dollar or one person, and because we can’t stop doing anything it’s exceedingly hard to start anything new.

Look to the “Cyberspace Solarium Commission,” a multi-stakeholder US government effort to chart a comprehensive way forward on cyber threats. As one observer noted, while the “original Project Solarium [in the Eisenhower administration] adjudicated a debate among competing strategies, under the assumption that resources were finite and tradeoffs were inevitable”—however, the 2020-version—“wants to spend more and do more” by taking on “a variety of proposals, even those that seem to be contradictory.” 

Everybody knows the slogan, “if everything’s a priority, nothing’s a priority.” Everybody also conveniently forgets it when they craft strategy. What results is a whole lot of activity with nearly no progress. Wheel-spinning. Doing more instead of doing better. 

4. Fuzzy strategy. 

Clearly ambiguous. Precisely vague. Explicitly nebulous. Fuzzy strategy avoids being pinned down by using deliberately imprecise language that smothers the reader in extra syllables. 

There’s often no objective. No target. This is the Cheshire Cat problem (“Which road to I take?” she asked. “Where do you want to go?” was his response. “I don’t know,” Alice answered. “Then,” said the cat, “it doesn’t matter.” -From Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.)

These strategies are descriptive, not proscriptive. They can read like Wikipedia entries, entirely composed of lists on what the organization has done and what the organization is doing right now, as opposed to what the organization will do and should do going forward. 

One final note. Our principal writer on that “Make A Wish” strategy deserves to be let off the hook at least half-way. The culprit should instead be the senior leadership that forced such wishful thinking into the document. But this just reinforces the critic’s imperative—you’ve got to have the callouses (and stomach) to ask the tough questions and point out the obvious.

Ultimately, somebody’s got to tell the senior-leader-emperor that he’s got no clothes and looks really ugly naked.

*Afterthought: “Courage is the most important of all virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.” (Maya Angelou)

*Editor’s Note: What do you think? Really, what do you think? Please let me know with a comment, and, if you enjoyed this, forward it on to anyone you think might benefit or find it of interest. Your word-of-mouth mention to another person means everything to this community’s continued growth. Up next week, as promised - how to get people to read and take interest in your strategy.

All the very best & see you next week, Matt