How do you make your strategy succeed?

Complicated strategies often fail. Watch this short video with Donald Sull, London Business School professor, telling Harvard how by asking three questions you can break down complex strategies into simple steps that make a difference:

Strategies are important. But sometimes even great strategies have absolutely no impact on an organisation. And unfortunately the problem is often the strategy itself. It’s too complicated and has to be simplified.

Can you remember the strategy?

If not, how can it make a difference? To be remembered a strategy has to be understood. And for that to happen, it has to be simple. Any strategy that’s too complicated to execute will fail. So how can you distill a thick and complicated strategy document down to its simple essence to be understood, remembered and acted upon?

First it’s important to note that Sull’s definition of strategy is how firms create, capture and sustain economic value i.e. what the customer is willing to pay and the cost of producing your product/service.

So how do you significantly increase how much customers are willing to pay?  Or cut costs? “In most organisations it’s just a couple of things that have an impact on those two aspects”, says Donald Sull.

Donald Sull’s three questions 

  • What are your company’s key drivers?
  • What are your critical challenges?
  • Have you identified your must-win battles?

Just focus on the main issues since if you create a laundry list simplicity will go out the window. And do look at both internal and external drivers, challenges and must-win battles.

If as a management team you can take your complicated strategy and simplify it by focusing on value creation, critical challenges and must win battles you will, according to Donald Sull, bridge the gap between strategic insight and effective execution.

Do you agree with Donald Sull that simplifying your strategies make them more effective? Are you also of the opinion that complicated strategies don’t work? Do you agree with him that by asking the three questions he outlines a company is able to come up with a strategy that works? How do you simplify your strategies? Or, to put it in another way, how do you create strategies that work? Maybe complicated strategies have worked for you?

Video: Harvard Business Review – Picture: David Blackwell

48 thoughts on “How do you make your strategy succeed?

  1. What a great post.
    You always read about creating and making strategies, but never about winning at them. I agree so much about keeping it simple, as my dad used to say, "the more pipes the easier it is to get clogged"
    As always I learn so much here, and it helps me with my plans and strategies, thank you for sharing them with us.

  2. Strategies can be changed along the way. The market and demand does not stay the same. Yes, strategies should remain simple, people will forget anything too complicated. Employees should always know what they are working towards corporately otherwise they will detach themselves.

    1. Strategies should be changed on a continuous but that's another aspect of strategizing. If a strategy is complicated that will not happen because most of the staff will not be aware of what the strategy is.

  3. Good reminder, its easy to get so caught up in your ideas that you forget the audience (employees, colleagues or the public) need a simple explanation.

  4. Like others here I am definitely a fan of keeping things simple and I seem to have a pretty good system going now. But since 'planning' is almost an addiction for me I do have to be cautious about micromanaging things. Thanks for the inspiration and good advice!
    My recent post Life Lessons We Learn The Hard Way

  5. I agree that complicated strategies will be hard to implement. I really like these 3 questions to help focus on the key things. I’ve volunteered with non-profit and professional organizations and I can see these questions being useful in that realm as well as in the business world.

  6. Catarina, I especially liked the second point – what are the critical challenges and the point to keep them to a reasonable number. So often when management gets together to brainstorm sorting through the number of challenges thrown out becomes a challenge in itself.
    I am actually going to use this way of looking at barriers I need to overcome if I want my Etsy shop to grow.

  7. First I was going to comment on – look at what is called ObamaCare in the USA Catarina and you will see of course, a failure. Some would argue it is successful, however – obstacles, and not getting buy in from the very people it targetted – fail. Plus my husband is in the industry, although retired now. he and his company saw what was coming in the way of increased costs and more unhappy customers. BUT I digressed anyway!

    When I saw someone had commented I went another direction: Steve Jobs at Apple. “Some people say, "Give the customers what they want." But that's not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they're going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, "If I'd asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, 'A faster horse!'" People don't know what they want until you show it to them. That's why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.” " The point being – he DIDN'T rely on research!
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  8. I'm not sure I agree with his definition of strategy which he basically defines as profit. (The term he uses is economic value.) Particularly in the wrold of start ups a proven strategy in some sectors is not to maximize profit but to grow. That may mean spending more and offering low cost or even fremium services. Facebook is probably one good example of that. Even now as a more matrue company Facebook is evaluated more on growth than on profit. If you think of economic value not just as profit but as the velue of the company based on its stock price or on its powetential sale value, maximization of profit may not be the best strategy. Look how many startups were sold for sometimes outrageious amounts even though they never made a profit.

      1. I agree with the need to keep a strategy clear and simple if it is going to work. I just think his focus on profit as the goal of a business strategy is too narrow It is not the only way to build value and n some circumstances not the most effective way.

  9. The KISS principle applies as much in strategy as it does anywhere else. One needs to keep things simple in order to make it easier for people to visualise and communicate. If necessary, break the strategy down into small(er) steps and focus on these – building on each over time.

  10. I agree simplifying strategies make them more effective. There is an expression which is keep it simple stupid, which means keep it short and simple" and "keep it simple and straighforward". Even Albert Einstein: "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." This means that one should simplify the design of a product and success is achieved when a design is at its maximum simplicity.
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  11. Unless my memory fails me (quite likely), this piece segues nicely from the one where you explained the difference between goals and strategy. In the business world, size matters. I think a smaller enterprise can get by with simplified goals and a less intricate strategy. This gets tough to pull off when a corporation (or non-profit) is composed of interlocking (or non-interlocking) divisions, each with their own goals and strategies. Then it is important for someone (or a committee) to be keeping tabs on the big picture. The somewhat disastrous roll out of our new health insurance system in the United States is a good example of everybody not being on the same page—maybe not even reading the same book.
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    1. Don't you think the goal an organisation works towards has to be understood, no matter how big it is? The same applies to strategies. If staff don't understand the strategy and hence come up with tactics that don't work what happened with the roll out of the new health insurance system is likely to happen. Would it have worked better if strategies had been simplified and understood? Probably. Someone should, as you say Suzanne, have been keeping tabs on the big picture i.e. goal and made sure the strategies were compatible with the goal.

  12. Sounds like those who implemented the healthcare reform could have used this advice as now the roll-out is disastrous and can undermine Obama's signature reform. But then again, healthcare reform is never simple, the laws and loopholes were complicated to begin with.
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      1. My current strategy has been to focus on client referrals, and so far it’s been paying off. Then again, I’m a one-woman show, so that makes things considerably simpler.

  13. Someone recently sent me a 13 page "strategic" communications plan. When I was finished with it, the plan was three pages long and the first page was the project description. How strategic can any plan be if it's so long that no one wants to read it?
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  14. Simplicity is king in any execution. I think many organisations could use the three questions and get to the point. Making things overly complicated doesn't help anyone.
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  15. It will come as no surprise that I agree about strategy must be simple Catarina. One other problem I see today is there are too many companies telling their clients that they must have a strategy for everything. Such as content strategy which only complicates the area for clients.
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    1. No it comes as no surprise, Susan:-) Thought of you when I wrote it. Good point you make of too many companies coming up with more strategies than they need. Agree with you completely.

  16. Boy howdy! I have witnessed many complicated strategies. What was amazing to me was the surprise that those same strategies had little to no affect… Go figure. Anytime you/we can keep things simple and to the point, strategies have a chance to succeed. I do like his list of questions that help to make that happen.

    1. Yes Susan, the list of questions to simplify your strategy is good, isn't it. Can't avoid wondering why strategies are usually so complicated they are neither remembered not understood.

  17. Completely agree that complicate strategies are not effective. In part, because with less people doing more work, no one has the time to devote to anything too complicated. In my business, it helped to properly assess the customers needs before developing a strategy to meet those needs and profit ,too.
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