Top 10 Barriers to Great Strategy

For many managers, the word strategy conjures up thoughts of gigantic PowerPoint decks, binders collecting dust and general confusion. A survey by Roger Martin of the Rotman School of Management found that 67 percent of managers believe their organization is bad at developing strategy. Harvard Business School professor David Collis is even more direct: “It’s a dirty little secret: Most executives cannot articulate the objective, scope and advantage of their business in a simple statement. If they can’t, neither can anyone else.” Martin’s research supports this point: 43 percent of managers cannot state their own strategy.

What seems to be the cause of this lack of performance when it comes to strategy? My research with 500 managers at 25 companies identified the top 10 strategy challenges and the frequency of each challenge by company:

1. Time (96%): Research suggests that 85 percent of executive leadership teams spend less than one hour per month discussing strategy, with 50 percent spending no time at all. If you don’t create the time to think about strategy, it simply won’t happen.

2. Commitment (72%): Only 20 percent of workers say they understand how their tasks relate to the organization’s goals and strategies according to Covey. If strategy is not translated to an individual or team’s daily tasks, then their level of buy-in will be minimal.

3. Lack of priorities (60%): A shocking 95 percent of managers said their company did not have a rigorous and disciplined process for focusing top management’s time on the most important issues.

4. Status quo (56%): Strategy inherently involves changes in the way we allocate resources and human beings are generally adverse to change.

5. Not understanding what strategy is (48%): As UCLA professor Richard Rumelt writes, “Too many organizational leaders say they have a strategy when they do not . . . 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.” A Harvard Business School study reported that 95 percent of employees in large organizations are unaware of or don’t understand their strategy.

6. Lack of training/tools for thinking strategically 48%: Research has shown that 90 percent of directors and vice presidents have no training to become competent business strategists.

7. Lack of alignment 48%: Strategies from above and strategies from below can make a manager feel like the meat in a strategy sandwich. Covey confirms nearly 65 percent of employees don’t have a clear understanding of their goals, which makes alignment of strategy nearly impossible.

8. Firefighting (44%): In a ten-year study of 35 organizations, researcher Ingrid Bonn concluded, “The main problem identified by the majority of senior executives was strategic thinking. ‘Our senior executives tend to get carried away by details and lose their strategic perspective.'” When a strategic mindset is absent, being reactive becomes the norm and managers bounce from one thing to the next like a bumper car.

9. Lack of quality/timely data & info (36%): An Economist study shows that 62 percent of workers cannot make sense of the data that they receive. If data is not understandable or timely, then it cannot be used as the basis of strategic insights.

10. Unclear company direction (32%): Managers from more than 500 companies have taken an assessment I developed called, “Is Your Organization Strategic?” and the average score is 45 percent, a failing grade, indicating there are many rudderless companies out there that are strategically adrift.

There are plenty of reasons why you can’t do strategy well. Will you succumb to them, or overcome them?

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