The Failed Strategy Fallacy

Some leaders are natural skeptics. They move slowly and methodically, careful to gather every possible detail before proceeding and—perhaps as often as not—finding that particular ideas and courses of action are likely to fail and should not be pursued. Even when they proceed, it is cautiously and with an eye toward circumventing potential pitfalls.

That’s not me. Don’t get me wrong; I gather a lot of information and use it all to inform my decision-making. But I’m biased toward action. When I have a preponderance of evidence, I make decisions quickly and dive in. Further, I’m passionate. About everything. If I’m in it at all, I’m in it 100%. And I am fully invested in the success of my effort.

Whether your leadership style tends to be skeptical or passionate like mine, being an effective leader means articulating a clear and compelling vision to your team and translating your decisions into a strategy that they can get behind. If people don’t fully understand where they are going and why, it is nearly impossible to successfully realize a vision. For skeptical leaders, engaging around vision often means bringing strong evidence to make a case. For advocate leaders, engaging around vision often presents as impassioned storytelling.

Because this shared vision is so important, we tend to linger on it. We spend a great deal of time and energy envisioning the future, distilling rationale, and—however we do it best—telling a meaningful story about where we want to go and why. We bring people along on our journey in an effort to solicit their support and convince them that our vision is the right one. And yet, leaders frequently lament that their strategy isn’t the shining success they once believed it would be.


Often because we relegate the most important part of the strategy—how we will bring it to life—to a few under-developed slides at the end of the deck. Too often, budget, capacity and timeline get short shrift because they are less engaging and more difficult to compellingly narrate than the story of the vision. The result is that while people may see and believe in the vision, they lack a shared understanding of how to take action. So they continue to do what they have been doing, perhaps trying to add more to already full plates rather than make real change.

Real change requires collaboration, and it requires as much not doing as doing. It also requires a realistic alignment of financial and human resources, a strategic approach to implementation tailored to the context of the organization and its capabilities, and a thoughtful and realistic timeline that sets appropriate expectations for every person and process involved.

We have all seen a presentation, whether it is at a school board meeting, a team retreat, or a high-stakes pitch to funders, where the presenter concludes a 10, 15 or even 30 slide deck about the problem, opportunity, and solution. Then they close with one (unrealistic) slide on budget, one slide on capacity (somehow two people are going to make it all happen) and timeline (it\’s going to be finished tomorrow). Even if it’s a little more realistic than that, it’s almost never sufficiently tied to reality. 

Because we fail to dig deeply into the details of how the change will be executed, we often misdiagnose the cause of strategy failure. We assume the vision was wrong, the strategic plan was of poor quality, or the organization’s talent capacity was too limited. We respond by setting a new vision and start the whole process again—only to end up with the same conclusion. And the cycle perpetuates the cycle.

Sometimes, the vision or the strategy may be off base. More frequently, though, the problem is an on-going failure to understand and manage the shifts in behavior required to realize those things. We may address the total cost, but not where the funds will come from or what funding will need to be discontinued or diverted in order to enable the new strategy. We identify the capacity needed, but not the talent that will be refocused or the talent that will be reduced elsewhere to make it possible. And we lay out a timeline (usually an overly aggressive one) for our shifts without attending to the concurrent reduction in other activities—or the capabilities of staff to live in a world where they are both winding down one line of work and ramping up another.

As you take on a change project, think about change activity as an effort scale. The actual work is 10% plan and 90% implementation, and yet so often teams and organizations devote their energy in the opposite way. The fact is, no matter how thoughtfully developed it is, the plan is only the beginning. The hard work begins when the utterly exhausting effort of explaining the idea has finally reached those who will implement it.