The “State of Strategy Today” : Good strategy is worth doing well | A.T. Kearney

In a study performed, we found a strong correlation between a company’s total shareholder returns (TSR) and its planning horizon…Those with longer horizons saw stronger returns than those with shorter…!!

We were not surprised then when our latest strategy study found a similar correlation. Only this time, the comparisons are between successful and unsuccessful strategies. Of companies with longer strategy cycles—five years or more—85 percent see beneficial results. For companies whose strategy cycles are less than five years, 53 percent are successful. Interestingly, there is little difference between companies that take an ad-hoc approach to strategy (46 percent) and those with planned strategy cycles of less than five years (47 percent)…

This last point is reassuring, as it suggests that a properly executed strategy is worth pursuing. Just 6 percent of companies have strategy cycles of more than 5 years. It can be argued that strategy cycles are more important in today’s competitive environment or, as one study participant says, “To succeed today, we need to innovate, and innovation requires strategy and commitment. So it makes sense that committing to a strategy over time results in success over time”…

Strategy is more difficult now..When working on consulting engagements, our clients sometimes complain that it’s much harder now to craft powerful and easy-to-communicate strategies. “Strategy formulation and deployment is a complex, moving target,” explains one CEO. Another blames the difficulties on what she calls “an ever-changing business environment that requires spending more resources on strategy.” Our study findings reflect the same frustrations: 62 percent of business executives say strategy has become more complicated over the past decade, and 74 percent say complexity forces them to spend more time and effort on strategy formulation. Yet, despite these increased efforts, 46 percent of strategies fail to meet expectations..

Interestingly, C-suite executives are much more optimistic about the effectiveness of their companies’ strategies than those in management…Indeed, 81 percent of executives believe their strategies are meeting or exceeding expectations, while 48 percent of those at the management level are less optimistic (see figure 3). Further, this C-Suite misconception is even greater for companies that are lagging their peers as almost 100 percent of executives believe their strategies are working just fine, while management is much more skeptical..

Agility to the rescue – maybe It is commonly accepted that today’s business environments are fast changing and dynamic, and much more so than just a few decades ago. These tumultuous conditions have caused some executives to question whether strategy is even possible anymore. Isn’t a strategy outdated before it can be implemented? Aren’t we better off to focus on agility in order to capitalize on emerging trends faster than peers? These are some of the questions we heard. We put this thinking to the test with surprising results: More than 80 percent of global executives consider agility as important, or more important, than strategy when it comes to securing a company’s future success. And only a slim 19 percent believe a strategy-induced competitive advantage is still possible (see figure 4). In the minds of business leaders, it appears that strategy is failing…


However, a deeper dive into the survey data finds that “agility as a substitute for strategy” notion is flawed. We wonder if it isn’t simply a self-fulfilling prophesy :  Those who believe agility is the foundation for success have failing strategies, while those who believe strategy is a source of competitive advantage, have exceptionally successful strategies. The more interesting question, which begs further investigation, is in which direction the causality flows: Do companies have trouble formulating and deploying strategies and so turn to agility? Or, does a focus on agility as the answer to today’s challenges lead to the demise of strategy? Does a string of successful strategies mean strategy is the answer to all that ails an organization ??

What’s to blame for strategy failure?

Judging by the responses of our study participants, strategy failure is an emotional topic. One participant puts it this way : “In large organizations, strategy formulation is too complex and too top-down, leaving the rest of the organization to play catch up. And before they can do so, the next strategy is being rolled out.” Another says: “Strategic planning often takes place in an ivory tower by individuals who haven’t a clue what happens at the implementation level.” These and other comments suggest that the interface—the handover—between strategy formulation and deployment is to blame for failed strategies. Our findings confirm this. When asked to identify the trigger of a failed strategy, 7 percent of executives point to formulation, 6 percent point to deployment, and 86 percent say it is a mix of the two (see figure 5)..


Strategy formulation: What goes wrong?

If there is ever a need for knowledge, experience, and preparation, it is during strategy formulation. When asked about their strategy formulation failures, most executives complain that it is an insufficiently inspired, unrealistic, impractical, and detached process :

  • Lack of understanding of future trends (88%)
  • Little understanding of internal capabilities (87%)
  • Too much top-down approach (84%)
  • Not enough logical thinking (84%)

One interesting finding is the conflicting perspectives about the role data analysis plays in a failed strategy formulation process. Some blame “too much data analyses” while others say there is “not enough data analyses.” The reasons for the different views depends on the participants’ backgrounds. For example, many in the too-much-data group have firsthand experience in data analyses of the “boiling the ocean” type—in which substantial efforts yield few real insights. The other group is accustomed to formulating strategy using strategy statements that are not backed by sound financial justification or based on quantifiable competitive opportunities..

Several study participants consider secrecy an issue…“The C-suite is afraid competitors will learn our strategy and so do not involve middle-level managers as much as they should in developing the strategy,” explains a manager. “Clearly, keeping our organization as much in the dark as our competitors about our strategy is not a fast lane to success”..

Strategy deployment: What goes wrong?

Many of the reasons for failed strategy formulation are also attributed to failed deployments. For example, a strategy might be too ambitious and broad for the organization, too narrow to cope with the full breadth of changing market conditions, or deployed from an impractical top-down perspective. “Strategy deployment is now our greatest challenge,” explains a CEO. “Market conditions require a more aggressive strategy, but execution has not changed.”

Not surprisingly, reasons for failed deployments have more to do with the handover between strategy formulation and deployment:

  • Lack of internal understanding of the strategy (90%)
  • Lack of internal capabilities to execute the strategy (90%)
  • Lack of ownership (86%)

This makes for bewildered, disenfranchised, overwhelmed, and under-supported deployments. As one manager admits, “We underestimate the combined effects of overlapping initiatives on the same group of people”..

Gauging the future –

Study participants largely agree that a better understanding of future trends is a prerequisite for sound strategy formulation: “Our strategies fail at the development stage because we do not accurately determine where the market is heading in the next three to five years.”

Not surprisingly, over the last decade many companies have increased use of future-focused tools such as fore-sighting, trend analyses, and scenario planning (see figure 6)..

Organizational inclusiveness –

Involving the organization in strategy formulation resolves the handover issue between formulation and deployment. “Strategy that doesn’t make it out of the boardroom isn’t really strategy,” admits an executive. “Attempting to make it purely process-driven overlooks the importance of the ‘goodwill’ factor—the people who actually deploy the strategy because they buy into it, and not just because it is their job to deliver it.” Our findings break down this thinking into a number of distinct points. At the base, is the conviction that involving more people with firsthand experience in dealing with markets, customers, competitors, processes, and suppliers makes for better and more practical strategies.

“Bringing in a general workforce opinion helps management make more informed decisions,” says a manager. “All levels of the organization can contribute to strategy formulation and implementation. Middle management and the workforce provide practical input.” Organizational involvement is also essential for making strategies sufficiently ambitious. As one executive says, “The most important area for innovation in achieving goals and targets are the skills and knowledge of staff. Without these, the top-down approach is doomed to mediocrity.”

Our findings back up these observations : Two thirds of companies that pursue meaningful organizational inclusion in strategy formulation have successful strategies. Yet, involving the workforce doesn’t just make strategies better and more practical, it also lays the groundwork for engaging the right people in strategy deployment: “We involve our people at all levels in strategy development and find that innovation and diversity of ideas are pluses, both in adopting change and in people acting as change agents. An engaged individual is more resourceful than one who is simply employed.”

Organizational involvement is not a panacea. It provides innovation and practicality and, while it does not really affect speed, it does make things more complex (see figure 7). As one CEO says: “Consultation can be a bit of a pain and slow down a good planning operation, but the results following the consultation can make the extra time well worth it”..


Strategy needs to be led- 

not just decided on Despite the virtues of organizationally inclusive strategy formulation, the complexity that accompanies it can be an issue. For this reason, inclusive strategy requires top-down leadership, with top management establishing the ideas, ground rules, organizational teams, and direction that are critical for middle and lower management. Strategy, at its best, becomes less of a decision and more of a direction to inspire the organization to follow—not once, but on an ongoing basis.

As one CEO says : “Strategy & Leadership go hand-in-hand, you can’t have one without the other”…!!


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