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When Strategic Thinking Isn’t Enough: 4 Reasons Why Large Change Projects Fail

Recently, the Harvard Business Review published an article listing the five strategic questions leaders need to ask. The article, while worth a read, didn’t address the arguably more pertinent issue about how a well thought out strategy should be implemented. Creating a well-defined, deliberate strategy is certainly a prerequisite for thoughtful business development, but how do you move past the design phase into the execution of the idea? Is writing your strategy down enough? The short answer is no—simply writing a strategy down isn’t enough to ensure its successful implementation. Famed management researcher Henry Mintzberg has argued that a lot of strategic decision making is “emergent” as opposed to “deliberate.” What this means in practice is that much of an organization’s strategy is formulated on the go, driven by unexpected events. The “tyranny of the urgent” takes over daily operations, as organizations face overwhelming pressure to act in the short term, with little to no thought for the long term implications. Even if you happen to get the time to really reflect and create the perfect strategy, you still aren’t guaranteed to hit it out of the park. Did the structure of your organization suddenly change to facilitate the new strategy? Did the new strategy come with pre-fabricated projects that will ensure its successful implementation? Major change projects fail at an astonishing rate (numbers range from 50-80%, depending on the research), and perfecting your strategy won’t make you immune to the numerous other factors that ail the execution of large change projects. Once you’ve considered your strategy, consider how you will avoid the following four hurdles:  

  • Inability to translate strategy to effective projects Can you derive effective projects from your strategic principles?
  • Lack of Alignment between Business and IT Is business driving IT or is IT driving the business?
  • Inadequate insight into how existing projects contribute to strategy Is every project undertaken by your organization encompassed by your overall strategy?
  • Failure to involve stakeholders resulting in a lack of end-user adoption Do the people who comprise the organization understand what is expected of them and why?

Ultimately, strategy fails to make a difference when it isn’t embraced by the organization. Lack of alignment and inability to see the impact of strategic changes can be as deadly for large change projects as poorly defined strategy can be. How does your organization move from strategy to execution? Do you think it is more important to have a killer strategy or the ability to implement an average strategy?


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