Patterns of failed implementation

During the many times I've taught Strategic Management to college seniors, my favorite topic to explore was this: the patterns of failed implementation. Every textbook I've seen goes overboard at strategy formulation as if there was no danger of analysis paralysis. I presume the textbooks take this approach because academics pride themselves on empirically accurate analyses. These textbooks also devoted only one chapter to strategy implementation, as if the full adoption of a strategy change will occur if the formulation is well-conceived. I presume implementation gets shortchanged because the topic is too messy for precise empirical analysis and verification. Here's some of the complexity that entangles the failed implementation of strategy changes:

Blame Games: When strategies fail, there's usually a question of whether the strategy failed in planning or execution. If the planning was done by higher ups, they will often blame the implementers. If the implementers had no say in the formulation, they will feel better by blaming the planners. A blame game will emerge fought with emails of rumors and false accusations. Fingers will be pointed at others while none point back at the accusers. All this takes away from the strategy questions that need to be reexamined.

Inbred cynicism: When strategies get formulated by big brains at the top of tall hierarchies, the low ranking members often become cynical, disheartened and defensive. They're not getting listened to when they can see familiar problems before they occur and unexpected trouble on the horizon. When things go from bad to worse, they're saying "I told you so". They cannot get an audience with higher ups because their "bad news" looks like whining, cynicism and weak excuses. The top shoots the messengers rather than assimilate their messages. When new strategies get announced, the lower ranks erupt with "here we go again", "this too shall pass" or "put on your boots - it's getting deep in here".

Preordained failures: When a strategy has failed in the past, the next one is likely to fail in the future. The system that generated the flawed strategy is functioning as before. The structure remains in place that dictates what gets seen, how it gets interpreted and why it seems reasonable. The questions are not getting asked that could disrupt the pattern of flawed inputs, outlooks, criteria and evaluations. The systems and structure are taken for granted. The failures yield "all the more reason" to try harder, to try again and to never stop trying. Tactical thinking is presumed to be strategic.

Pain Mismanagement: When flawed strategies take effect, those close to the customers, production or internal problems get burned. They are learning to avoid getting toasted like that again. Those in the executive suites are usually feeling no pain. They are learning to go for more conquests, quick fixes or boondoggles. A stalemate emerges between those running from the pain and those in pursuit of more pain. The masochists have been paired with the sadists.  Those trying to minimize their pain will get very creative at sabotaging all reckless, insensitive and clueless changes in strategy. They're not opposed to further employment or their employers continued success. They are seeking relief from their continued psychological pain.

These patterns are highly captivating and addicting. When they take hold, it's unlikely the enterprise will rebound from their failed implementation of strategic changes. The complexity defies reductionist problem solving and quick fixes. The debilitating effects in these patterns will weaken the enterprise beyond it's ability to survive.


Escaping vicious cycles

When we're deploying an effective strategy, we get energized by how well the strategy is working. We're appreciating the timing, the approach and the outcomes. We're seeing others benefit from how effective our strategy has become. All this gets us thinking how we might take this game up a level or fine tune the strategy. We're continuing to rely on our strategic thinking and explore more possibilities.

When we're deploying an ineffective strategy, none of this occurs. We go into a vicious cycle instead. There seems to be no escape from the nightmare scenario spawned by the ineffective strategy. The vicious cycle convinces us to:

  1. rely exclusively on our tactical thinking
  2. worry constantly about what can go wrong next
  3. mistrust higher ups and other outsiders who we blame for the strategy mistakes
  4. stop trying to improve, change or revise what's not working
  5. assume that any creative possibility is too weird, inapplicable or costly to help out
  6. lose all sense of purpose and self motivation 
  7. become entirely dependent on extrinsic rewards
  8. feed the array of problems with neglect, over-reacting and half-efforts
  9. struggle with apathy, depression, paranoia and sleeplessness
  10. put on show of complacency to hide all this inner turmoil

As you can see from this list, when we're caught up in deploying an ineffective strategy, we're in no shape to shape up. It's as if we're stuck in a hole where our only options are to dig deeper or to do nothing. The way out begins with letting go of trying to get out of the vicious cycle. It helps to not-know what to see, think and do. Progress occurs by seeing the repeating patterns with detachment, where they can be critiqued, challenged and dismissed. The exit is found when we switch to our strategic thinking.


Formerly effective strategies

When we're formulating new strategies, our minds are full of questions. We're exploring different possibilities and experimenting to uncover an approach that works. We're comparing different strategies to discern which is more effective at realizing desired outcomes at the least cost. We're trusting a process that leads to an unknown outcome, rather than following a recipe to replicate results. We're taking the time to get it right, rather than jumping to premature conclusions.

This pursuit of effective strategies occurs with the most mundane and the most global issues. We can be puzzling how best to prevent a drain from clogging at home or pondering how to reduce atmospheric carbon levels around the globe. Bigger scales may take more time, expertise and exploration than smaller, but the state of mind is the same.

Once we hit upon an effective strategy, our minds typically think "enough of that!". Our minds are eager to switch back to tactical thinking. It seems like it's time to stop asking so many questions, exploring so many possibilities and conducting so many experiments. We want to simply know what to do and get it done without hesitation.

At this point, our effective strategy is about to become institutionalized. It may become a simple habit or routine. It may get formalized in policy manuals or procedural requirements. It will likely become reinforced by evaluation and reward schema which incentivize sticking with the strategy. It may even become immortalized in a cultural narrative or taboo which enforces conformity with social pressures. From now on, we can only do what's been done in the past, whether or not it remains effective. It's been "set in stone" and not easily chiseled away.

There's no way out of this pitfall with recognizing what kind of thinking is missing. Without knowing the difference between strategic and tactical thinking, there's no way to formulate a new effective strategy. There's only too much talking about explicit change, possibilities and improvements, while the formerly effective strategy persists ad infinitum.


Explicit and implicit strategies

When we're acting as if something is true, we're enacting our implicit strategy. We're walking the talk of the real deal. When we're saying something is true, we're enacting our explicit strategy. We're talking the talk of some deal we want others to think is true. If these two kinds of strategy get disconnected, we don't know our own implicit strategy. We believe our explicit strategy and get haunted by our contradictory implicit strategy. We say one thing and do another like any garden-variety hypocrite. We cannot get it together because we cannot admit to ourselves how our actions say something different from our pronouncements. We cannot change our strategy while working at cross purposes like this.

Here are some examples of contrasting explicit and implicit strategies:

  1. When we're pushing the same product onto everyone, we're saying that we're meeting needs and providing value. We're acting as if there is no need to listen to customers, to cultivate relationships or to discover what beauty is in the "eyes of the beholder".
  2. When we're studying hard and getting good grades, we're saying that we're learning a lot and getting a quality education. We're acting as if there is no need to follow our intrinsic motivation, to tie in new information to our personal experiences or to learn something only when the time is right for us.
  3. When we're spending big bucks on prosecuting and punishing deviants, we're saying that we're protecting ordinary citizens and improving public safety. We're acting as if there is no point in rehabilitation or remediation for those who are caught up in cycles of abuse. 
  4. When we're trying to control what others do, we're saying that we're in charge and exercising our authority in the situation. We're acting as if we've got nothing to lose and we have no influence to change others' conduct indirectly.
  5. When we win at others' expense and succeed at "winner takes all" games, we're saying we're victorious, superior and newsworthy. We're acting as if there's no long term cost to winning this way and no context getting trashed by our one-sided conquests. 
  6. When we're fixing what's broken and alleviating symptoms, we're saying that we're solving problems and getting our job done. We're acting as if there's no way that we're feeding the problems, we're failing to prevent them or we're misdiagnosing the deeper dynamics in play. 
  7. When we're acquiring more possession, we're saying we're feeling abundant, looking prosperous and improving our quality of living. We're acting as if there's no way we're implicitly unsustainable and overly-materialistic.

Our rivals can trump these explicit strategies by taking up the challenges posed by our implicit strategies. While we act as if we cannot go there, they can act as if they can. As we deny the possibility, they explore and exploit it. While we assume it doesn't work that way, they will get it working in their favor. Failing to integrate implicit strategies with explicit strategies gives away leverage to rivals.


Psyching out rivals' thinking

It's far easier to psych out rivals' thinking when they are limiting themselves by tactical thinking. When rivals are deploying strategic thinking, our perceiving their implicit strategies becomes far more subtle and complex. It's only possible to psych out rivals' thinking accurately when we know our own minds comprehensively. When we don't know our own minds, we will only see what we want to see and filter out what's really occurring. An accurate reading of others' strategies requires a highly evolved state of mind. Here are two challenges along the way of realizing what rivals are really thinking.

Embracing our inner enemies
We all get pressured to fit in, act "normal" and meet others' expectations of us. We develop a pretentious mask to avoid their censure, rejection and constant hassles. This mask hides what others' find objectionable within our inner panorama of contrary passions, urges, fascinations and longings. We make enemies of all our inner treasures that cause problems when they show up in our intolerant social context. Those components of our total psyche become adversarial, dark and devious. They seek to sabotage our pretentious mask which frames our inner treasures as enemies. The mask handles this "house divided" dynamic by projecting its inner enemies onto outside rivals. The mask shoots messengers and point fingers at anyone who resembles its inner enemies. It cannot see others for what they really are while embroiled in this chronic war with oneself. Embracing our inner enemies requires going within, listening to the inner enemies, realizing how they've been wronged by the mask, discovering what treasures they can become when framed as valuable and cultivating their enlivening contributions to our self motivation, self confidence and creative self expression.

Seeing the familiar as unfamiliar
Our minds are creatures of habit. They conserve energy (glucose) by making as much as possible seem familiar. Complex situations get categorized, labeled and stereotyped. This creates a comfort zone which can easily become a fortress against imposed changes, unexpected occurrences and incomprenehsible evidence. Our minds become biased, bigoted and belligerent when its reliable opinions get challenged. We are operating with "no further questions your Honor". Our minds our made up against asking better questions, restoring our childlike curiosity or enjoying life as a mystery. When we change our minds to see the familiar as unfamiliar, we have stopped conserving energy. We're taking the time and mental horsepower to ponder alternatives and pose new possibilities. We're valuing our questions more than our answers. We take off the blinders and open our eyes to what we're being shown that contradicts our preconceptions. We take evidence and opinions about what is apparent as highly questionable. We look deeper and more panoramically at the small thing that captures our attention. We see things through many lenses and from a variety of different perspectives.

When we've transformed our minds in these ways, our rivals are not our enemies which necessitated defending ourselves against them. They are our teachers and challengers who bring out our best. They show us what we've not been seeing, considering, questioning or utilizing. They give us wake up calls, fresh perspectives and challenges to our preconceptions. They invite us to become more creative, resourceful and passionate. They define a game worth playing where the outcome will transform the initial rivalry into viable solutions for everyone involved.


Cruising for a bruising

Strategic thinking trumps tactical thinking whenever there is a conflict. Strategic thinking can recognize when the other side is relying on tactical thinking. The patterns are obvious to strategic thinking while tactical thinking is totally unaware of how it's thinking. Tactical thinking only know what's it's thinking, not which kind of thinking or what's missing in its thinking.

Here's some of what's obvious to strategic thinking about the patterns of tactical thinking which can be exploited easily:

  1. Tactical thinking can only try harder, not try smarter. It will pursue the conflict with dogged determination at all cost.
  2. Tactical thinking can only function like a shark, not a dolphin. It pursues direct approaches and frontal attacks with the subtlety of a bulldozer.
  3. Tactical thinking must handle danger categorically, not complexly. Danger can only mean one thing as if it's a either/or, black & white issue.
  4. Tactical thinking clings to losing battles, not giving in or giving up. It cannot let go when it's the wisest choice.
  5. Tactical thinking is limited to fight, flight or freeze when confronted by a threat. It cannot become clever enough to mess with others' minds, perceptions and intentions.
  6. Tactical thinking gets locked in a loop, not finding a way out. It experiences problems as chronic, relentless and infuriating. 
  7. Tactical thinking can only pursue more tactical thinking, not switch to strategic thinking. It must react to others' reactions which pours more gasoline on the fire.

From these patterns, you may be able to perceive how easy it is to set up others' tactical thinking to be their own worst enemy. Anyone deploying tactical thinking in a conflict is cruising for a bruising. Tactical thinkers can be baited to deplete all their resources by pursuing an endless conflict. They can be convinced to never back down or appear weak in spite of the enormous strategic advantages offered by less rivalry.  Tactical thinking takes pride in determination in spite of sabotaging it's own surviving and thriving in the future. Fortunately, we can cultivate our strategic thinking to avoid these traps.


Getting things done

Our tactical thinking is good for getting things done. Right now, you're probably using your tactical thinking to get this read from start to finish. I used my tactical thinking to get this typed and published. Our tactical thinking enables us to be productive and become more proficient. It's good for completing tasks, applying methods and complying with requirements. If we didn't have tactical thinking, we could not use tools or stay focused long enough to get anything accomplished.

Our tactical thinking is easily provoked by others to argue, fight, oppose or retaliate without question. We react as if we already know what we're dealing with and what to do about it. We dismiss questions of strategy for fear it will weaken our resolve, distract our focus or delay our reaction. Our tactical thinking assumes our strategic thinking makes us look weak, vulnerable or uncommitted. We'd rather do too much and come on too strong than to find the right balance or use the right touch.

We can recognize that we're using our tactical thinking whenever we're getting something done without question. We already know what to do and are doing it by giving it our attention and determination.  We're dismissing questions like:

  1. how to do it differently? 
  2. how long to do it? 
  3. how often to do it? 
  4. how much of it to do?
  5. when to do it? 
  6. how to measure how well it got done?
  7. how to learn from what did not happen yet?
  8. how to do better next time?

When we're consider those questions, we've switched to strategic thinking. We've improved our odds of being effective. We've changed our thinking from dogged determination to pensive considerations. We've become more complex and responsive to variations in the situation we're facing.


Strategic and tactical thinking

What are you thinking? More importantly, how are you thinking? There's a big difference between strategic and tactical thinking that I'll explore in this next series of blog posts. I find that difference to give us a great explanation for why so much teaching, preaching, telling and selling usually backfires. When we use our tactical thinking, there's a slim chance our efforts will prove to be effective. When we deploy our strategic thinking, we've greatly improved our chances for a success.

At a first glance, strategy is concerned with strengths and weaknesses applied to opportunities and threats. When we ponder those with our tactical thinking, we assume:

  • strengths are obvious and best used to intimidate others
  • weaknesses are unfortunate and best kept hidden
  • opportunities are advantageous and best exploited
  • threats are provocative and best confronted

When we consider strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats with our strategic thinking, we can see how tactical thinking is predictable and flawed. We can rely on others' tactical thinking to take things extremely literally: "a strength is a strength without question". We can see how tactical thinking provides captivating self-imposed limitations which rule out superior possibilities. We can suspect the practitioners of tactical thinking are being pretentious, hypocritical and vulnerable to our own strategic maneuvers.

Through a strategic lens:

  • a show of strength may be a sign of hidden weakness or underlying insecurities
  • a show of weakness may be an indication of hidden strength or quiet confidence
  • an obvious opportunity may be a baited trapped or offer that's too good to be true
  • a provocative threat may be a potential ally or a cry for help 

Our strategic thinking can take something literally or imaginatively. It can react to face value evidence or read between the lines. It can polarize a distinction and see how the either/or can become a  both/and combination. This flexibility makes for enhanced effectiveness when we're teaching, preaching, telling or selling.