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.

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