Part Two: Why and How Digital Strategies Fail
Aug 23, 2011
Digital strategies don’t fail because they are bad strategies. More typically, they fail because there are issues with the communication, execution of the underlying tactical parts and the right team seeing the larger, moving picture.
In Part One of this series, we focused on how systems thinking helps us visualize more and understand the larger picture. It’s a lens that helps us see missed opportunities and problems hiding between unanticipated outcomes.
We can use systems thinking to look back at how strategies have failed and then look forward to elevate our perspectives and put ourselves into a more active and iterative mode with a better vantage point.
First, about the strategies being bad. I’ll never forget asking an old colleague a question about digital strategy whose answer surprised me. I asked him, “If you have to change your strategy in the middle of executing it, based on newfound information, was it a bad strategy to start with?” His response was “Yes, you should have known the best path forward — and had the conviction to follow through with it and accept the consequences.”
Really?! Was he really serious? I couldn’t have disagreed with him more. Strategies should be smart and forward thinking, but if you want to make strategic change work for your organization, you have to be flexible, forgiving and think from a continuous improvement mindset. The strategy has to be good and based on a measurable reality. A bad strategy that is perfectly executed will have a predictably bad outcome. Every time.
In my experience, I have found there are four primary and fundamental reasons why good digital strategies fail.
1. Poor vision
2. Rigid synchronization
3. Lack of communication
4. Lack of Runway for IT
1. Poor vision. By “poor vision,” I don’t necessarily mean executive vision in that “This is our future” way. I mean vision more literally — as in ability to see what is out in front of you. Visibility at the execution stage is critical. People often aren’t able to see everything going on well enough. It can be like the air traffic controllers have all left the tower and moved into the basement.
You have to be able to see what is happening and have the wherewithal to adjust based on what you see. You also have to think about each part as an individually wrapped piece with autonomy that can (and should) be moved and shaped and influenced based on all the other parts. You have to be receptive to the unanticipated. You have to anticipate one element of your strategy failing and be able to isolate it and swap in better ideas/plans/tactics in their place. This is the systems thinking part.
2. Rigid Synchronization. The way teams synchronize strategic elements is another reason why digital strategies fail. Strategy normally defines activities that get executed at a certain time and in a certain pre-determined sequence. The problem with this is that it often makes things more rigid than they need to be and tend to cancel out happy accidents or iterative practices along the way.
It’s understandable that those responsible for strategy execution want as much control and predictability as they can get. I certainly do. And digital strategies are most often very complex and highly interconnected processes. So seeing them linearly gives most people the comfort and predictability they are looking for.
Strict and rigid adherence to a linear process of strategy execution creates synchronization problems. Allowing a fair degree of flexibility in timeline and disrupting the typical step-by-step method allows teams to entertain impacts of changing the order at each stage — or at the very least, circling back to reconsider the approach to a subsequent step and how that might be different or change based on your progressively maturing grasp on the project.
Here’s an interesting “what if:” What if you deliberately adopted a one step forward and two steps back approach with your digital strategy? Of course the one step forward would constitute the bulk of the step and the two steps back would merely be a brief backward evaluation of where you have been to better inform where you are going. So, one full step forward and two tiny steps back. It’s all about smart momentum.
3. Lack of communication. Strategy execution is a long-term process of change involving many people at many levels in an organization. It benefits by having both top-down and bottom-up support. Most don’t pay as much attention to those further down the hierarchy — which is a mistake as it has a much bigger impact than many realize.
Entertain the following questions for everyone in your organization during a time of strategic shift or change:
- What will be changing inside and outside of our organization that will affect me, my team and our responsibilities?
- How will change affect my employees’ personally and professionally?How will change affect our employees’ stakeholder relationships?
- How will this strategy impact the expectations among employees and those above and below them in the organizational hierarchy?
- How will each employee react to changes in responsibility and opportunity both internally and externally?
When it comes to communication around strategy, envision the future environment and work backward. Try “backward thinking” where you are at the desired outcome first, and then work your way back to the present. At this point, you can begin to align the change with the employees’ expectations from the outside in.
4. Lack of Runway for IT. I’ve seen this happen half a dozen times. You finally agree on a fully aligned enterprise-accepted digital strategy and the executive “layer” signs off on it. Then it comes time to select and acquire an analytics package or Content Management System, for example, and the enterprise architects within IT find a slew of (legitimate) reasons why it wont work or why they cannot install it within the next 18 months. This is not uncommon. Which is why it’s in my “top four” list of reasons why digital strategies fail.
Solution: give them a lot of runway. Include them in the beginning of the strategy creation process. Ping them throughout. Not just for their IT stewardship but for their insight across the board.
On the other hand, many argue that IT too often becomes the tip of the strategic spear when it shouldn’t. While you can argue that tools aren’t strategic — that they’re enabling instruments – you cannot argue that IT isn’t strategic. IT isn’t a “tool.” That’s a stupid battle. A smarter battle is keeping your strategy balanced with the right allowance of IT.
More specifically, the best way to avert this is to agree up front, with executive sponsorship, that technology/software acquisition and installation will be a critical part of the process—that they will be asked to participate at all critical points—but it will not prevent or forestall the advancement of the digital strategy.
So there you have it. When you are embarking on a digital strategy, it’s not enough to get the strategy right, you have to focus on the environmental factors as well to make sure the conditions are optimal to make your work matter and succeed.