The Hallmarks of Bad Strategy

By Richard Rumelt

Richard Rumelt outlines the hallmarks of a bad Strategy with 4 key points; failure to face the problem, mistaking goals for strategy, bad strategic objectives and fluff!

1. Failure to face the problem

A strategy is a way through a difficulty, an approach to overcoming an obstacle, a response to a challenge. If the challenge is not defined, it is difficult or impossible to assess the quality of the strategy. And, if you cannot assess that, you cannot reject a bad strategy or improve a good one. If you fail to identify and analyze the obstacles, you don’t have a strategy. Instead, you have a stretch goal or a budget or a list of things you wish would happen.

2. Mistaking goals for strategy

A few years ago, a CEO I’ll call Chad Logan asked me to work with the management team of his graphic-arts company on “strategic thinking.” Logan explained that his overall goal was simple—he called it the “20/20 plan.” Revenues were to grow at 20 percent a year, and the profit margin was to be 20 percent or higher. “This 20/20 plan is a very aggressive financial goal,” I said. “What has to happen for it to be realized?” Logan tapped the plan with a blunt forefinger. “The thing I learned as a football player is that winning requires strength and skill, but more than anything it requires the will to win—the drive to succeed. . . . Sure, 20/20 is a stretch, but the secret of success is setting your sights high. We are going to keep pushing until we get there.”

I tried again: “Chad, when a company makes the kind of jump in performance your plan envisions, there is usually a key strength you are building on or a change in the industry that opens up new opportunities. Can you clarify what the point of leverage might be here, in your company?” Logan frowned and pressed his lips together, expressing frustration that I didn’t understand him. He pulled a sheet of paper out of his briefcase and ran a finger under the highlighted text. “This is what Jack Welch says,” he told me. The text read: “We have found that by reaching for what appears to be the impossible, we often actually do the impossible.” (Logan’s reading of Welch was, of course, highly selective. Yes, Welch believed in stretch goals. But he also said, “If you don’t have a competitive advantage, don’t compete.”)

The reference to “pushing until we get there” triggered in my mind an association with the great pushes of 1915–17 during World War I, which led to the deaths of a generation of European youths. Maybe that’s why motivational speakers are not the staple on the European management-lecture circuit that they are in the United States. For the slaughtered troops did not suffer from a lack of motivation. They suffered from a lack of competent strategic leadership. A leader may justly ask for “one last push,” but the leader’s job is more than that. The job of the leader—the strategist—is also to create the conditions that will make the push effective, to have a strategy worthy of the effort called upon.

3. Bad strategic objectives

Another sign of bad strategy is fuzzy strategic objectives. One form this problem can take is a scrambled mess of things to accomplish—a dog’s dinner of goals. A long list of things to do, often mislabeled as strategies or objectives, is not a strategy. It is just a list of things to do. Such lists usually grow out of planning meetings in which a wide variety of stakeholders suggest things they would like to see accomplished. Rather than focus on a few important items, the group sweeps the whole day’s collection into the strategic plan. Then, in recognition that it is a dog’s dinner, the label “long term” is added, implying that none of these things need be done today.

A second type of weak strategic objective is one that is “blue sky”—typically a simple restatement of the desired state of affairs or of the challenge. It skips over the annoying fact that no one has a clue as to how to get there. A leader may successfully identify the key challenge and propose an overall approach to dealing with the challenge. But if the consequent strategic objectives are just as difficult to meet as the original challenge, the strategy has added little value.

Good strategy, in contrast, works by focusing energy and resources on one, or a very few, pivotal objectives whose accomplishment will lead to a cascade of favourable outcomes. It also builds a bridge between the critical challenge at the heart of the strategy and action—between desire and immediate objectives that lie within grasp. Thus, the objectives that a good strategy sets stand a good chance of being accomplished, given existing resources and competencies.

4. Fluff

A final hallmark of mediocrity and bad strategy is superficial abstraction—a flurry of fluff—designed to mask the absence of thought. Fluff is a restatement of the obvious, combined with a generous sprinkling of buzzwords that masquerade as expertise. Here is a quote from a major retail bank’s internal strategy memoranda: “Our fundamental strategy is one of customer-centric intermediation.” Intermediation means that the company accepts deposits and then lends out the money. In other words, it is a bank. The buzz phrase “customer centric” could mean that the bank competes by offering better terms and service, but an examination of its policies does not reveal any distinction in this regard. The phrase “customer-centric intermediation” is pure fluff. Remove the fluff and you learn that the bank’s fundamental strategy is being a bank.

 

About the Author: Richard is the author of the bestselling book “Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why it Matters”. He has also authored various award winning research papers which have been appeared in publications such as McKinsey Quarterly and Strategic Management Journal. His insights and experience have led to Richard being described as “a giant in the field of strategy” and “strategy’s strategist”.

Photo: Sebastien Gabriel

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