According to executives, nearly half of all strategic initiatives fail.
Various studies conducted since 1995 consistently show executives will admit their strategic objectives have failed on some level almost half the time. I am not surprised by the failure rate, but I am thrilled by the honesty. When we can admit a problem, we can begin looking for a solution.
Strategy fails for two reasons: either the strategic plan is flawed or the strategy is a mess. The root cause of both failures is confusion around about what strategy is and what it is not.
Conceptually, strategic intent answers the question Why?, strategic objectives answers What?, and tactics answers How?.
The trouble comes when strategic objectives and executional tactics are also considered strategy.
We’ve all seen a set of tactics presented as a strategy. This is a classic mistake, but one that can be avoided when these concepts are understood as separate but connected elements in an overall business framework.
Most business leaders are very comfortable with the idea of creating a plan for executing strategic objectives. They know how to break a broad objective into smaller objectives, and then assign the necessary tasks and deadlines to individuals to accomplish those goals. This sounds like a straightforward process and is impressive when the plan is presented in a whiz-bang slide deck. Yet those same business leaders are surprised when the execution of that plan doesn’t quite proceed as they’d intended, or at least about half of them are.
Unfortunately, without answering the Why question first, there are no criteria for evaluating those objectives or how they will be executed. The leader can either do nothing because they cannot make a clear-minded decision on their own, or they’ll do what most leaders do: make the best guess and hope it doesn’t fail. Suddenly, it becomes apparent where the high failure rate of strategic initiatives comes from.
After years of observing weaknesses in traditional strategic approaches, I’ve developed a better method, a proven method, that will clear up the confusion and optimize a company’s business resources. I’ve attempted to share the thought processes behind that method in my book, Candor (request a free copy on my website). I will offer here one of the most glaring examples of where companies have run amok in separating the why from the what and how of branding.
How Our Why Was Lost to Brand B.S.
It’s generally understood that brand, as the term is now used, began in the twentieth century. Linguistically it has a long history, but as it applies to the stakeholder’s image of a business, it has a fairly short one. All its diverse origins and evolutions could be investigated, but it’s not necessary to go that deep into history to gain an effective understanding. Simple definitions are the most useful.
The short story about “brand” goes like this: As the mass-produced products from the industrial revolution came to market, it created an identity problem in the local store. The following question arose: How does one differentiate a new, modern product (like a healing salve, for instance) from the local product everyone has trusted for years? The problem of communicating the unique value of any given product was born. Eventually, this created an entirely new industry category that became part art and part soft science, which is now referred to as branding.
Brand equity, brand personality, brand valuation, brand experience, etc., are all useful terms, and they help us discuss many crucial aspects of the sophisticated marketing approaches we have developed over more than a century. Brand has a strong upside that fueled economic engines around the globe for years.
Brand also has a downside. As the idea of brand evolved, it grew in strength as a separate entity from the business itself. This caused a dual vision for those who were in charge and misperceptions grew. The ideas of business and brand became more and more disconnected. Separate departments formed with separate directors. Silos began to emerge within the corporate culture with conflicting agendas and goals. Branding’s power grew to a point where the old ways of running a unified business were left in the dust.
Unfortunately, branding lost its head and became ego driven. It seemed to be able to generate its own power with little accountability to the rest of the company. The old way of doing business appeared to be dead.
A perfect example of this would be Coca-Cola (Coke). In blind taste tests, there is no obvious favoritism, according to results published in the October 14, 2004, issue of the journal Neuron, but in taste tests where the brand is visible, Coke is preferred by 75 percent. Coke is a powerful icon worldwide.
Making a needed product that performed well and satisfied its user was no longer the priority. In fact, belief in the strength of branding made us consider whether a quality product was even necessary. Even those of us who made a living by marketing and branding started to drink our own Kool-Aid.
We no longer felt the need to actually tell the truth about the products or offerings, because the brand was the thing that people would buy. We no longer needed to obsess over the product; that was the old way of doing things. Now, all we had to do was tell the potential buyer what to think through great branding. With enough really smart creativity, we would motivate the purchase.
The hard thing for me to admit is that it actually worked for a period of time. Most of the buyers jumped on the branding bandwagon and were genuinely influenced by the grand illusions presented by marketers.
If You Want to Rebel, You’ll Need to Know Your Why
Knowing your authentic Why has a clear benefit. If you can write down the reason why your company makes the world a better place, share it companywide. Use it to make all your business decisions. You will be more trusted than your competitors, and you won’t have to settle for traditional methods that produce traditional results.
Want to learn more from Shari? Check out her recent webinar below to hear more about a rebellious approach to strategic planning!