The Perils of Bad Strategy

Here is a brief excerpt from an article written by Richard Rumelt for the McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company. To read the complete article, check out other resources, learn more about the firm, obtain subscription information, and register to receive email alerts, please click here.

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Bad strategy abounds, says UCLA management professor Richard Rumelt. Senior executives who can spot it stand a much better chance of creating good strategies.
Horatio Nelson had a problem. The British admiral’s fleet was outnumbered at Trafalgar by an armada of French and Spanish ships that Napoleon had ordered to disrupt Britain’s commerce and prepare for a cross-channel invasion. The prevailing tactics in 1805 were for the two opposing fleets to stay in line, firing broadsides at each other. But Nelson had a strategic insight into how to deal with being outnumbered. He broke the British fleet into two columns and drove them at the Franco-Spanish fleet, hitting its line perpendicularly. The lead British ships took a great risk, but Nelson judged that the less-trained Franco-Spanish gunners would not be able to compensate for the heavy swell that day and that the enemy fleet, with its coherence lost, would be no match for the more experienced British captains and gunners in the ensuing melee. He was proved right: the French and Spanish lost 22 ships, two-thirds of their fleet. The British lost none.1
Nelson’s victory is a classic example of good strategy, which almost always looks this simple and obvious in retrospect. It does not pop out of some strategic-management tool, matrix, triangle, or fill-in-the-blanks scheme. Instead, a talented leader has identified the one or two critical issues in a situation—the pivot points that can multiply the effectiveness of effort—and then focused and concentrated action and resources on them.
A good strategy does more than urge us forward toward a goal or vision; it honestly acknowledges the challenges we face and provides an approach to overcoming them.Too many organizational leaders say they have a strategy when they do not. Instead, they espouse what I call “bad strategy.” Bad strategy ignores the power of choice and focus, trying instead to accommodate a multitude of conflicting demands and interests. Like a quarterback whose only advice to his teammates is “let’s win,” bad strategy covers up its failure to guide by embracing the language of broad goals, ambition, vision, and values. Each of these elements is, of course, an important part of human life. But, by themselves, they are not substitutes for the hard work of strategy.
In this article, I try to lay out the attributes of bad strategy and explain why it is so prevalent.
Make no mistake: the creeping spread of bad strategy affects us all. Heavy with goals and slogans, governments have become less and less able to solve problems. Corporate boards sign off on strategic plans that are little more than wishful thinking. The US education system is rich with targets and standards but poor at comprehending and countering the sources of underperformance. The only remedy is for us to demand more from those who lead. More than charisma and vision, we must demand good strategy.

The hallmarks of bad strategy

I coined the term bad strategy in 2007 at a Washington, DC, seminar on national-security strategy. My role was to provide a business and corporate-strategy perspective. The participants expected, I think, that my remarks would detail the seriousness and growing competence with which business strategy was created. Using words and slides, I told the group that many businesses did have powerful, effective strategies. But in my personal experiences with corporate practice, I saw a growing profusion of bad strategy.

In the years since that seminar, I have had the opportunity to discuss the bad-strategy concept with a number of senior executives. In the process, I have condensed my list of its key hallmarks to four points: the failure to face the challenge, mistaking goals for strategy, bad strategic objectives, and fluff.

Failure to face the problem

A strategy is a way through a difficulty, an approach to overcoming an obstacle, a response to a challenge. If the challenge is not defined, it is difficult or impossible to assess the quality of the strategy. And, if you cannot assess that, you cannot reject a bad strategy or improve a good one.

International Harvester learned about this element of bad strategy the hard way. In July 1979, the company’s strategic and financial planners produced a thick sheaf of paper titled “Corporate Strategic Plan: International Harvester.” It was an amalgam of five separate strategic plans, each created by one of the operating divisions.

The strategic plan did not lack for texture and detail. Looking, for example, within the agricultural-equipment group—International Harvester’s core, dating back to the McCormick reaper, which was a foundation of the company—there is information and discussion about each segment. The overall intent was to strengthen the dealer/distributor network and to reduce manufacturing costs. Market share in agricultural equipment was also projected to increase, from 16 percent to 20 percent.

That was typical of the overall strategy, which was to increase the company’s share in each market, cut costs in each business, and thereby ramp up revenue and profit. A summary graph, showing past and forecast profit, forms an almost perfect hockey stick, with an immediate recovery from decline followed by a steady rise.

The problem with all this was that the plan didn’t even mention Harvester’s grossly inefficient production facilities, especially in its agricultural-equipment business, or the fact that Harvester had the worst labor relations in US industry. As a result, the company’s profit margin had been about one-half of its competitors’ for a long time. As a corporation, International Harvester’s main problem was its inefficient work organization—a problem that would not be solved by investing in new equipment or pressing managers to increase market share.

By cutting administrative overhead, Harvester boosted reported profits for a year or two. But following a disastrous six-month strike, the company quickly began to collapse. It sold off various businesses—including its agricultural-equipment business, to Tenneco. The truck division, renamed Navistar, is today a leading maker of heavy trucks and engines.

To summarize: if you fail to identify and analyze the obstacles, you don’t have a strategy. Instead, you have a stretch goal or a budget or a list of things you wish would happen.

Mistaking goals for strategy

A few years ago, a CEO I’ll call Chad Logan asked me to work with the management team of his graphic-arts company on “strategic thinking.” Logan explained that his overall goal was simple—he called it the “20/20 plan.” Revenues were to grow at 20 percent a year, and the profit margin was to be 20 percent or higher.

“This 20/20 plan is a very aggressive financial goal,” I said. “What has to happen for it to be realized?” Logan tapped the plan with a blunt forefinger. “The thing I learned as a football player is that winning requires strength and skill, but more than anything it requires the will to win—the drive to succeed. . . . Sure, 20/20 is a stretch, but the secret of success is setting your sights high. We are going to keep pushing until we get there.”

I tried again: “Chad, when a company makes the kind of jump in performance your plan envisions, there is usually a key strength you are building on or a change in the industry that opens up new opportunities. Can you clarify what the point of leverage might be here, in your company?”

Logan frowned and pressed his lips together, expressing frustration that I didn’t understand him. He pulled a sheet of paper out of his briefcase and ran a finger under the highlighted text. “This is what Jack Welch says,” he told me. The text read: “We have found that by reaching for what appears to be the impossible, we often actually do the impossible.” (Logan’s reading of Welch was, of course, highly selective. Yes, Welch believed in stretch goals. But he also said, “If you don’t have a competitive advantage, don’t compete.”)

The reference to “pushing until we get there” triggered in my mind an association with the great pushes of 1915–17 during World War I, which led to the deaths of a generation of European youths. Maybe that’s why motivational speakers are not the staple on the European management-lecture circuit that they are in the United States. For the slaughtered troops did not suffer from a lack of motivation. They suffered from a lack of competent strategic leadership. A leader may justly ask for “one last push,” but the leader’s job is more than that. The job of the leader—the strategist—is also to create the conditions that will make the push effective, to have a strategy worthy of the effort called upon.

Bad strategic objectives

Another sign of bad strategy is fuzzy strategic objectives. One form this problem can take is a scrambled mess of things to accomplish—a dog’s dinner of goals. 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. Such lists usually grow out of planning meetings in which a wide variety of stakeholders suggest things they would like to see accomplished. Rather than focus on a few important items, the group sweeps the whole day’s collection into the strategic plan. Then, in recognition that it is a dog’s dinner, the label “long term” is added, implying that none of these things need be done today. As a vivid example, I recently had the chance to discuss strategy with the mayor of a small city in the Pacific Northwest. His planning committee’s strategic plan contained 47 strategies and 178 action items. Action item number 122 was “create a strategic plan.”

A second type of weak strategic objective is one that is “blue sky”—typically a simple restatement of the desired state of affairs or of the challenge. It skips over the annoying fact that no one has a clue as to how to get there. A leader may successfully identify the key challenge and propose an overall approach to dealing with the challenge. But if the consequent strategic objectives are just as difficult to meet as the original challenge, the strategy has added little value.

Good strategy, in contrast, works by focusing energy and resources on one, or a very few, pivotal objectives whose accomplishment will lead to a cascade of favorable outcomes. It also builds a bridge between the critical challenge at the heart of the strategy and action—between desire and immediate objectives that lie within grasp. Thus, the objectives that a good strategy sets stand a good chance of being accomplished, given existing resources and competencies.

Fluff

A final hallmark of mediocrity and bad strategy is superficial abstraction—a flurry of fluff—designed to mask the absence of thought. Fluff is a restatement of the obvious, combined with a generous sprinkling of buzzwords that masquerade as expertise. Here is a quote from a major retail bank’s internal strategy memoranda: “Our fundamental strategy is one of customer-centric intermediation.” Intermediation means that the company accepts deposits and then lends out the money. In other words, it is a bank. The buzzphrase “customer centric” could mean that the bank competes by offering better terms and service, but an examination of its policies does not reveal any distinction in this regard. The phrase “customer-centric intermediation” is pure fluff. Remove the fluff and you learn that the bank’s fundamental strategy is being a bank.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Richard Rumelt is the Harry and Elsa Kunin Professor of Business and Society at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. This article is adapted from his book, Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters (Crown Publishing, July 2011).

 

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