Why Strategy Fails at Execution

ilustration of a man firing an arrow at a target and missing

A very popular Japanese proverb states “Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare”. You need a firm business strategy, or ‘vision’ to achieve the desired results, then you need to action that strategy, or nothing will ever happen.

And then of course, as Winston Churchill once said, However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results”. But all of us know that right? Surely it is common sense that whenever you build a strategy, you would keep an eye on things, like whether the plans that you had put in place are actually working or not? Is there a need to take some corrective actions? Are there some tough decisions to take?  Or worse – is there a need to change the strategy and go for a new dream, a new vision?

So, you have a business strategy in place and you hire consultants who help your organization to execute the strategy. Easy-peasy, isn’t it? Well, No! According to Harvard Business Review, in 2016, it was estimated that 67% of well-formulated strategies failed due to poor execution.

67% is a huge number. Another interesting figure to ponder – McKinsey Research suggests that 70% of change efforts fall short of desired results. Some brilliant ideas such as digitizing finance operations, setting up shared service centres, implementing “one touch” solutions etc., keep flying around during board discussions but in reality, very few of these ideas see the light of day. Why do most companies struggle with strategy execution?


The basic “culprit” of strategy execution failure is the lack of a focused and guided communication. Often leaders come up with fantastic, out of the box ideas but sometimes, these ideas do not match the official storyline of the company. The ideas simply do not “blend in” with the overall long term vision and business strategy of the organization, and at times can be contradicting.  And that’s not the only problem. Many times, I have noticed that no one wants to be the “bad guy” and challenge the leader. That’s where the art of communication plays a key role.

A competent project lead should be smart and humane enough to understand the cues from their team, to judge the discomfort (if any) in the room and urge the team to speak up. Be direct, be honest and be thorough. With this, the team leader can help to avoid communication failures from leadership, which inevitably lead to strategy execution mismanagement.

Unprepared Leaders

Bridges Business Consultancy conducted a survey on Strategy Implementation in 2012 which revealed some startling numbers. As per their survey findings, 70% of project leads spent less than one-day a month reviewing strategy, while 85% of the leadership teams spent less than one hour per month discussing strategy.

So, when leaders take up roles that involve higher degrees of ownership and accountability, are they losing their way? Spending valuable time resolving issues related to internal power tussles within business groups, or looking at tackling small ticket items that can otherwise be handled by other team members. If project leads allow themselves to get swept up by the small things, their focus shifts away from the bigger picture – the strategy execution.

Resistance to Change

We often hear leaders say “We used to do these things in a certain way in my previous company and it worked fine. We sure should try doing the same here as well.” It’s a great idea to adopt best practices but one also needs to understand the mechanics of an organization – its people, processes and technologies.

But you can’t lift and shift another organisation’s best practices to your current one straightaway. Just because it worked earlier, there is no guarantee that it’s going to work this time too and pushback from the new organization to change is going to be inevitable. Project leads need to think holistically to overcome any resistance to change and try out new ideas that blend into the organizational culture to create something new that will help realize the vision.

Final Thoughts

To sum it up with Simon Sinek’s thought provoking quote – “Those who know WHAT they do tend to work harder. Those who know WHY tend to work smarter”. So it boils down to two things: the WHY and the WHAT. Leaders who are smart enough to make the distinction have a higher chance of getting their strategies executed perfectly. What do you think?