Don’t do this: The reason good strategies fail

A good strategy is not a guarantee of success, for two reasons.

The first, as we’ve discussed before, is the unfortunate fact that a good strategy can still be wrong.  All strategies are, unavoidably, speculative – and therefore even the best of them may not work quite the way you imagined when they get out there in the real world.

Fortunately even “wrong” strategies generally have a way of working out in your favour.  Even if the hypothesis was faulty, they still help you create a tidy, distinctive, and focused brand which the market will probably find another way to interpret.  Solid strategies that actively sink a business are very rare indeed.

No, more common and more damaging is the second reason for failure:


Now generally delegation gets pretty good press.  On the whole it’s something we’re told we should do more of, and that most executives (especially founders) don’t do enough.

“Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you and let them get on with it!” goes the advice.  Don’t micromanage.  Empower your team.  Etc. etc.

We all know why it’s supposed to be a “good thing”.  And indeed it is.  Except with strategy.

Strategy is the one function – the only function – of a whole business that should never ever under any circumstances be delegated.  It is the responsibility of the top dog, and the top dog alone – not only when it comes to final decision making, but also the development process.

We might even go so far as to say that it’s the only job a CEO has, because everything else at a pinch can probably be delegated quite effectively.

So why is strategy delegation so fatal?

The core reason is that strategy is not a discipline which is owned by a “vertical” within the business (e.g. marketing, sales, finance, etc.), but rather an umbrella discipline which lies across all of them.  Because most businesses are organised in a straight forward departmental structure, where units operate parallel to each other, none of them will have the necessary oversight or authority to command all the others in a strategic manner.

This is not only a question of competence, it’s a question of authority.  You need a bit of fear to make change happen – the kind of fear that’s only present when the change in question is the priority of your boss’s boss.

Some founders shy away from the process, believing others in their team to be more suited to the task than them, but this is never the case.  Strategy is not so much about ability as it is about perspective.  It’s about looking at the big picture, rather than the day to day.  Assuming all the other tasks in the business have been delegated effectively, then it is only the founder who will have this – everyone else is too busy in their silo.  In fact, if there’s someone else in the business who has a wider perspective than the founder, then something very weird has happened!

It’s this issue of delegation that contributes to the curious fact that businesses without strong marketing departments tend to be more strategic than those with them.

This probably sounds quite surprising, but I’ve found it to be true.

You see marketing is the first place that strategy normally gets delegated, because it’s the department most closely related to it (both strategy and marketing deal with the outside world’s perspective of the business).  However marketers invariably mess strategy up – partially because of the authority issue mentioned above, and partially because they think in terms of “brand strategy” – which is related, but not the same.

(Truly brilliant marketers don’t make this error, but they are sufficiently rare that we can assume you don’t have any on your team!)

I’m always a bit wary when I start a project with a brand that has a powerful marketing department, because there’s always the potential for things to silently drift into a glorified branding campaign.

By contrast brands with limited marketing departments are super exciting, because you know that you’ll be dealing with pure, high impact strategy in all its glory.


At the end of the day you, as a founder or CEO, have two options:

  • Do the strategy yourself
  • Or do it with the help of an external consultant (*cough*)

A consultant who can act as a peer to the founder, and work through them, has the same effect as the founder doing the work themselves – only perhaps with an even bigger picture POV because they are totally removed from the business.

You have one job guys – so may as well own it.

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