When All Is Said and Done, a Lot More Gets Said Than Done*
IF YOU WANT TO PLAY the odds, bet on failure. That’s what’s likely to happen when you execute strategy or implement organizational change.
I’ve seen it play out countless times. Like when I managed the Consulting Division of The Atlanta Consulting Group. We would facilitate strategic planning retreats for mid-market companies. Working with the members of a client’s Strategic Leadership Team, we would lead them through a structured process to develop their strategic plan. When we were done, they would be focused, aligned, and ready to conquer the world. Mission accomplished. Or so we thought.
The following year they would bring us back to help update their strategic plan. Naturally, we would ask what was accomplished the previous year. That’s when the bodies would start to squirm and the eyes dart away.
“Well, we had hoped to accomplish more, but (insert list of excuses).”
The long and short of it: Not a lot got done.
Strategic planning? It was a charade. A waste of time, money, and effort. And our experience wasn’t unique. Published failure rates for strategic planning range from 70 to 90 percent.1
FAILURE IS PERVASIVE, PAINFUL, AND PERSISTENT
It’s not just strategic planning. The same is true of any strategic change initiative (SCI). Mergers and acquisitions? Up to 90 percent fail.2 Lean Six Sigma? Between 60 and 90 percent fail.3 Software and systems projects? Over 70 percent fail.4
And how costly is all this failure? For IT projects alone, the worldwide cost has been estimated at up to $3 trillion a year.5 Yes, trillion with a “t.”
Think of a failed SCI in your organization. Now guesstimate the total cost of failure—not just the up-front costs but also the downstream costs such as lost productivity, employee turnover, or lost customers. Now add the opportunity cost of failure. I’ll bet the total cost of failure is far greater than you first thought.
This isn’t a recent trend. A Harvard Business Review article noted that “most studies still show a 60–70 percent failure rate for organizational change projects—a statistic that has stayed constant from the 1970s to the present.”6
Sure, you could quibble about the percentages or the definitions of failure, but the conclusion is undeniable. It doesn’t matter whether it’s strategic planning, an acquisition, IT implementation, or any of a thousand other SCIs. If you want to play the odds, bet on failure.
THE UNINTENDED, UNRECOGNIZED, AND UNFORGIVABLE CONSEQUENCES OF FAILURE
It gets worse. When SCIs repeatedly fail, you create a track record of failure. You create an expectation of failure. You create an acceptance of failure. And you create a culture of failure. Failure becomes the norm.
You might be thinking: “Hold on. It’s not like our efforts have been a total failure. We’ve made progress. We’ve gotten some things done.”
That’s it? That’s your reaction? And you’re the leader?
The tragedy of repeated failures is how they poison organizational culture. It becomes easy for people—starting with you—to rationalize anything other than success. And it becomes all but impossible to get people to believe in and support the next SCI. The culture of failure becomes self-perpetuating.
If you’ve decided that this travesty has to end, and you’re intent on getting to the root of the issue, then take a look in the mirror.
It’s you. It’s what you as a leader haven’t done but need to do to execute strategy, implement change, and build an organization that wins.
Here’s the good news: This book can help you win. But you have to supply the commitment. It won’t be easy and it won’t happen overnight. Anyone who tells you otherwise either is lying or hasn’t lived it.
First, I need to lay some groundwork to help you understand why SCIs so often fail, and the three surprising principles you must embrace to succeed.
Ready to face reality?