Why strategy often fails and how to make it work

There is probably no word as misused and misunderstood as strategy. Talking about strategy often leads to eye-rolling or sighs around the room. If you observe carefully, you might even catch sight of people cringing or getting instant heartburn.

Why does this happen? Let us dive into a couple of reasons to pinpoint why strategy often fails. Then we will cover how you can make strategy work.

Reasons for strategy failure

1. It’s full of fluff: no choice, no focus, no action

If you were to look up many different companies’ strategies, you will notice that they are very open. This goes hand in hand with fluffiness because by remaining open to everything, they cannot be concrete. In order for strategy to work, you need to make choices.

Imagine if instead of declaring the goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade, John F. Kennedy said their goal was to put a man on the moon, Mars, explore outer space, put some satellites into orbit and try to communicate with extraterrestrial life. Exactly. By making the deliberate singular choice to go to the moon, they created focus and that led to action. The rest is history.

Another famous example: when Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, he drew a very simple chart. It looked like this:

All other products were cancelled. By deliberately choosing to focus on only four devices, Apple was able to revive. Again, the rest is history.

Conclusion: no choice, no focus, no action and a whole lot of fluff.

2. No focus on the customer

This applies to any type of organisation. Non-profit organisations have ‘customers’: the cause for which they exist. Public organisations have ‘customers’ too: the people relying on the services rendered by that organisation. All that differs is the way payment is made and what or who is considered the customer.

If an organisation does not focus on their ‘customers’, their ‘income’ will be affected. Even with artificial market tactics in play, they will be presented with the consequences one day.

Conclusion: if your strategy does not focus on your ‘customer’, you cannot have a winning strategy.

3. Everything is set in stone (or the complete opposite)

The complete opposite is also a recipe for disaster. Often seen at start-ups (what they call pivoting), you have companies that change their strategy every day or whenever they encounter a setback. This is not how strategy works at all. Strategy should not be too fixed but should remain as a guide for an organisation — and a guide needs to show stability. For start-ups struggling with strategy, it is most likely either too early for you to need a strategy yet or you need to see strategy as separate from your product or service.

4. It’s based on false assumptions (instead of good assumptions)

False assumptions are assumptions where logic is either flawed or misses the right mark. An oft seen example in digital strategy is when one tries to become a leader in a specific market by converting clients of incumbents with a non-digital product to their digital product. It is built on the premise that these customers want a digital product instead of a non-digital one. As long as it remains unproven whether customers want a digital version of the product, the assumption will be false. Furthermore, they cannot become a market leader if there is no need or demand for the digitisation of a specific product. We know from experience that there are quite a few industries, products and services where customers do not want a digital experience. Good examples are the financial or healthcare industry, where clients and patients prefer traditional relationships with a person because it provides more trust. It doesn’t matter whether the trust argument is correct or not, as long as customers cannot be convinced of the opposite, they won’t be ready to make the shift towards a digital product.

Differing from false assumptions are incorrect assumptions. Incorrect assumptions start from good assumptions: the logic behind it is correct, but you do not know if it is true. To know if an assumption is correct, partially correct or incorrect, you need to validate the assumption through experimentation. The way you react to assumptions found to be incorrect is the most important factor. If the assumption is invalidated, you should first recognise this and see it as something positive, then take action to iterate on your strategy by replacing the incorrect assumption with the validated result or by looking for another solution. If you remain blind to this possibility or deny the results, your strategy will fail as well. If you iterate, you will be successful.

Conclusion: if you want your strategy to succeed, avoid making false or incorrect assumptions.

5. It’s a single person’s job

6. It’s too complex

How to make strategy work?

1. Use a designer’s approach

Designers are very comfortable with leaving behind their biases and presumptions, which allows them to experiment and think more broadly. There is a huge toolkit available to help designers achieve this. These tools do not only focus on ‘design’ activities, but are there to help designers solve problems and design solutions. When they learn from an experiment that something doesn’t work, a designer will take this information and iterate so they can find another possible solution. They will keep doing this until they’ve nailed it. Doing this allows them to create an unbiased strategy that is flexible enough to iterate, but stable enough to serve the longer term to achieve a goal.

Designers strive for simplicity. Simplicity is about choosing what to do (and thus also what not to do) and leaving behind the things that do not matter (the noise). Simplicity is also about cutting back on complexity without denying the complex nature of something. This helps to create concrete and simple strategies.

Finally, designers are not afraid of doing new things. Remember those old beige computers? That all changed when a designer had the crazy idea to introduce colors. Remember those physical buttons on smartphones? Me neither, thanks to that same designer. In both cases, the industry predicted their failure. Now those who predicted their failure are copying the winners.

2. Make it a team effort

In addition to opening up horizontally, make sure that expertise and information flows vertically as well. There are people on your team who may be speaking with customers directly and can provide you with information you cannot see in the data (or vice versa). By making sure expertise and information flows upwards, you are actually enabling downwards information flow. And having both enables people to feel engaged and involved. It will also increase the chances your strategy has of winning.

3. Create trust and delegate

Imagine a company whose strategy is to become a leader in the Canadian perfume sector. The strategy may also include some of the company’s key differentiators: only natural products, no testing on animals and the use of innovative sensory patterns. However, the strategy should not include the look and feel of the boxes, how the advertisements will be made, or how the store’s employees will guide people towards the best perfume. Those details are up to the different product units looking after the entire line-up of perfumes.

Within the organisational strategy, they will create a nested strategy: a strategy that lives within another strategy and provides further guidance downwards without becoming too specific. Getting too specific is no longer strategy but micromanagement.

To do that, you need to create trust and be willing to delegate further. If you are prepared to create such an environment, your strategy will become more successful and have a higher chance of good execution. By creating trust and delegating, you involve people, which makes them feel heard and they will buy-in. Also: at that level, they most likely have better expertise, knowledge and information to decide on a strategic direction. Believe us when we say that your in-store employee knows better sales tactics to convince people to buy that perfume than you do. Take that as an advantage!

The above can be summarised into an example: imagine that you are going on a road trip with friends. You won’t map out every corner you will take, detail every meal you will have, and you certainly will not calculate the watts of energy you will need for every part of the journey (yes, we updated the metaphor to give it a modern spin). Rather than focusing on every single detail, you simply plan to go from point A to point B, which the most likely stops will be, and where you hope to spend the night. Everything else will be decided during the journey because things may change. A diner may be closed, an accident may cause a long traffic jam, weather may impact how fast you can go, etc. Those decisions are ones you make as you go. Some of them are planned (e.g. “we’ll make a stop at 10h and we’ll make a second stop at 13h”) while others are made in the moment (e.g. “I drank too much latte and it is killing my bladder so please take the next exit”). Remember this the next time you lead your team to success!

4. Mind your capabilities

5. Watch and don’t stare at (or copy) your competition



Builder, designer, innovator, entrepreneur, husband and father.

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