How to care for the fragile nature of strategy

Determining your strategy may seem like the hard part. In reality, it's protecting and nurturing your strategy as it's developed and executed.

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As leaders we spend a lot of time talking about strategy, carefully determining the internal and external influences that should guide our strategy, obsessing about the words used to articulate it, and spending hours presenting and sharing our strategy as it develops. Once our strategy is approved and funding is secured, it can seem like a long and difficult journey has finally been completed, and it's time to sit back and enjoy the fruits of our labors. Unfortunately, nothing can be further from the truth.

While it can seem that a strategy that is set in motion is like an unstoppable battleship slicing through the stormiest seas, a strategy is much more fragile than it seems, and it must be nurtured and protected, even if it has the backing of the Board and CEO.

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Culture is always hungry

You may have heard the expression that "culture eats strategy for breakfast," an expression attributed to Peter Drucker. Not only is it true, but your organization's culture is ravenously hungry. A brilliantly crafted strategy that requires collaboration across business functions will fall to pieces in a matter of weeks in an organization where the culture resists such collaboration, and leaders don't take careful steps to mitigate this tendency.

In some cases, the easiest path to avoid this is to have the self-awareness to understand the culture and craft your strategy such that it plays upon positive aspects of that culture and avoids potentially negative elements. This can be more difficult than it sounds, as being immersed in your culture on a daily basis can make it difficult to understand its nuances, and in many cases, aspects of your culture that are celebrated and held as positive traits can be hidden negatives. A culture that promotes innovation and individual achievement, for example, might handicap a strategy that requires external collaboration and use of off-the-shelf technologies in order to be successful, since these will be perceived as "not being invented here" and coming from another party versus internal individual innovators.

Individual teams, workgroups, and business units may also have their own unique, and potentially very different cultures, versus other parts of the company. These differences can create challenges if your strategy requires cooperation across teams, units, and geographies, and might create significant personal frustration as you attempt to employ strategies that were wildly successful in the past when you're working with a different part of the company.

In short, taking the time to understand and monitor the impact of your culture will protect your strategy as it's developed, and ultimately, executed upon.

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The success trap

Another counterintuitive risk to strategy is early, resounding success. Oftentimes early success can be what leads to an early demise for your strategy. Success, particularly early in the execution process, is often interpreted as a sign of the inherent brilliance of the strategy rather than the significant, diligent effort that went into achieving the success. Any early win might cause you or others to reshuffle the team, perhaps with all the best intentions, or redirect investment of funds and executive attention. In some cases, you may even attempt to "franchise" the strategy, standing up an effort that's superficially exactly the same, only to see it fail dramatically.

It's extremely rare that a strategy is successfully executed solely on its own merit. While all the "right stuff" may have gone into forming and launching the strategy, execution is a fraught endeavor, and usually requires great, committed people on the ground who are supported and guided by their leaders. Something as simple as changing the team to a group that has similar skill sets on paper but lacks a personal commitment to the success of the strategy can turn a successful effort into a failure. Similarly, a leader who congratulates himself or herself on their brilliance after an early victory, and then turns their attention elsewhere, may soon discover their team and their strategy flounder a few short weeks later.

It's easy to assume the right strategy will always win the day. Hundreds of management books and articles imply that setting the strategy is an art, and with a bit of diligence, nearly anyone can execute the "right" strategy. This implies robustness and durability to the strategy that simply doesn't exist. To be successful, you must care for and guard your strategy, as if it were a fragile glass sculpture, precariously positioned on a wobbly stand in the middle of a rambunctious and crowded party. At the end of the day, the glass sculpture has a better chance of successfully surviving than a poorly protected and nurtured strategy.

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Image: Bojan89, Getty Images/iStockphoto

By Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...