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The 7 Deadly Snares of Strategy

by Nate Schloesser
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Cautionary Tales of Dominance to Downfall.

In the sprawling landscape of business literature, certain titles stand tall, guiding lightposts for many a strategist. Michael Porter Jr.’s ‘What is Strategy’ stands as a cornerstone text in the realm of strategic thinking. Equally enlightening is the ‘Strategyzer Series’ which delves deep into strategic insights. ‘Good Strategy, Bad Strategy’ by Richard Rumelt provides a clear dichotomy between effective and ineffective strategies, while ‘Playing To Win’ sheds light on the intricacies of competitive strategy. Simon Sinek, in his influential work ‘Start With Why’, emphasizes the importance of purpose in strategy. And then, there are the numerous treasures from Harvard Business Review — a veritable goldmine of strategic wisdom. These are just many of the dozens of books on strategy.

But here’s a quirky twist: even with this treasure trove of guidance, some of the business world’s Goliaths have taken missteps that would make a rookie wet their pants. Enter “The 7 Deadly Snares of Strategy.” These aren’t your papa’s faux pas or average mistakes; these are the forehead-smacking lapses that have sidetracked even the best.

But why dwell on these tales of woe? Not to poke fun, promise! Ok, maybe just a little bit of poking is needed. Seriously though, there’s a wealth of learning hidden in these cautionary tales. As we delve deeper into each snare, we’ll unearth lessons that can safeguard our strategies and steer us clear of common pitfalls. After all, sometimes the best way to chart a successful path forward is by understanding where others took a wrong turn.

Let’s embark on this journey, not just to recount these misadventures, but to ensure that armed with knowledge, we don’t repeat them.

The 7 Deadly Snares of Strategy:

  1. The Internal Organizational Snare
  2. The Environmental Snare
  3. The Resource & Capability Snare
  4. The Stakeholder Snare
  5. The Strategic Decision-Making Snare
  6. The Innovation & Adaptation Snare
  7. The Global vs. Local Snare

1. The Internal Organizational Snare

The Pitfalls of Misaligned Culture and Buy-In

This snare is two-fold. First, there’s the danger of directionless leadership and a lack of cohesive vision. But, even with a clear direction, there’s another lurking challenge: ensuring that the people within the organization, those at the helm of day-to-day operations, genuinely adopt and are committed to the strategic vision.

  • Directionless Leadership: Even the best strategies can crumble without a consistent leadership vision. Shifting priorities and a lack of direction can lead an organization into chaos, leaving teams without a clear understanding of the company’s goals.
  • Adoption & Buy-In: A strategy, no matter how brilliant, is only as strong as the commitment of those tasked with its execution. Leaders often assume that once a strategy is decreed, the organization will dutifully follow. However, ensuring genuine buy-in, where individuals aren’t just aware but are invested in a strategy’s success, is crucial. Without this alignment, the most meticulously crafted plans can fall apart at the seams.

Case Study: Hewlett-Packard (HP)

Hewlett-Packard, once a titan of the tech industry, faced tumultuous times during this period:

  • Directionless Leadership: HP experienced rapid turnover at the CEO level. From Carly Fiorina to Leo Apotheker and several others in a short span, each brought their vision and strategic initiatives. This frequent changing of the guard led to shifts in strategic priorities, causing confusion and inconsistency.
  • Notably, under Apotheker’s brief tenure, HP announced its intent to spin off its PC division (a decision later reversed) and acquired Autonomy for over $10 billion, a move later mired in controversy and write-downs.
  • Adoption & Buy-In: With every change in leadership came new strategic directives, causing whiplash among the employees. Initiatives would start, only to be halted or reversed by the next CEO. This constant shift made it challenging for employees to buy into any long-term vision or strategy. The frequent changes also impacted morale, causing mistrust in the leadership’s direction.
  • Additionally, the Autonomy acquisition became a major pain point. Not only was there controversy around the acquisition’s price and subsequent value write-down, but integrating the company and getting employee buy-in for the deal proved challenging, further eroding trust within the organization.

Lessons Learned:

A consistent leadership vision is essential, not just for direction but for employee trust and buy-in. Frequent changes at the top can erode the foundation of a company, making it challenging to implement any strategic decisions effectively.

2. The Environmental Snare

The Peril of Ignoring Trends

Overlooking or dismissing significant changes in the external business environment can be the silent killer of many businesses, particularly when those changes involve drastic industry shifts or seismic technological advancements.

Case Study: Kodak

Once the crown jewel of the photography world, Kodak’s golden era saw them practically synonymous with capturing memories. From the heartwarming family picnics to iconic world events, Kodak was there, ensuring those moments were immortalized. Gosh, I still remember my pocket Kodak instant camera. Man, I’m getting old.

However, the digital age was dawning, bringing with it a revolution in how we snap, store, and share photos. As the world swiftly gravitated towards digital photography, Kodak hesitated. While they weren’t completely blind to the digital trend (having invented the first digital camera), they grossly underestimated its potential impact, clinging to their film-based revenue model for far too long.

By the time Kodak decided to play catch-up, the digital train had long left the station, (choo choo!) with other players like Canon, Sony, and Nikon already comfortably seated in first class. Kodak’s delay led to their eventual filing for bankruptcy in 2012, a shocking fall for a company that once held an enviable position in its industry.

Lesson Learned

The Kodak tale is a stark reminder to businesses: inaction can be just as harmful as making the wrong move. It’s crucial to stay attuned to industry trends, no matter how secure a company feels in its current position. Today’s leaders can quickly become tomorrow’s case study in obsolescence if they resist the winds of change.

3. The Resource & Capability Snare

Overestimating One’s Strengths

Succeeding in one arena can sometimes make companies wear blinders, leading them to believe their current strengths are invincible. Not investing in innovation or diversification, however, can lead to their downfall.

Case Study: Blackberry

Remember when Blackberry ruled the corporate world? Those tactile keys, the BBM pings — they were the mark of a professional. At the pinnacle of its success, Blackberry was the go-to device for business communication. The Blackberry was my go-to when I started off in design and marketing.

Yet, as the world transitioned towards more versatile smartphones with diverse app ecosystems, Blackberry remained steadfast in its approach. This unwavering confidence in their existing strengths made them slow to adapt to the touch-screen revolution, though The Blackberry Storm was 🔥.

Despite introducing touch devices later on, the market had shifted, with Apple and Android-based devices taking the lead. Blackberry, once a giant, found its market share plummet.

Lesson Learned

Blackberry’s narrative is a stark reminder that today’s strength can be tomorrow’s weakness if not nurtured and evolved. Complacency is innovation’s worst enemy. Businesses must consistently re-evaluate their strengths against the changing market landscape.

4. The Stakeholder Snare

Neglecting Key Interests

Every organization exists in an ecosystem, and neglecting the interests of key players in this system can lead to disastrous consequences.

Case Study: BP and the Deepwater Horizon Disaster

In 2010, the world watched in horror as the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, leading to one of the most catastrophic environmental disasters in history. The aftermath was not just environmental but significantly tarnished BP’s reputation. Though not enough for me to stop from working there. 😉

While the technical reasons for the disaster are many, at its core, the incident revealed a neglect for the concerns of key stakeholders — the environment, local communities, and even shareholders. Recovery, both environmental and reputational, took years and billions of dollars.

Lesson Learned:

BP’s ordeal underscores the critical importance of considering all stakeholders in strategic decisions. Balancing business ambitions with stakeholder concerns is not just ethical but essential for sustainable success.

5. The Strategic Decision-Making Snare

The Short-Term Trap

While immediate gains can be tantalizing, strategies built solely around them can lead to long-term pitfalls.

Case Study: Blockbuster

Blockbuster, the once-mighty movie rental giant, had the world at its feet. Weekend plans for many involved a trip to their local Blockbuster store. Yet, as the world began to lean into online streaming, Blockbuster chose to focus on its immediate brick-and-mortar profits.

Even when they had the chance to acquire Netflix (yes, that Netflix) for a mere $50 million in 2000, they passed. Fast-forward a decade, and Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy while Netflix’s star was on the rise.

Lesson Learned:

Blockbuster’s fall from grace serves as a timely reminder: Don’t get so wrapped up in today that you neglect tomorrow. Strategic foresight is as much about preparing for the future as it is about capitalizing on the present.

6. The Innovation and Adaptation Snare

Resistance to Change

In a rapidly evolving world, clinging to old models and resisting change can lead to a company’s downfall.

Case Study: Sears

Sears, a staple in American retail history, once had its catalog in nearly every American home. Yet, as e-commerce giants like Amazon emerged, Sears remained heavily reliant on its traditional retail model.

Their sluggish response to the e-commerce wave, combined with other internal challenges, meant they couldn’t compete in the new digital marketplace. This resulted in a slow decline, culminating in bankruptcy in 2018.

Lesson Learned:

Sears’ decline is a textbook example of the perils of resisting change in a dynamic market. For companies to remain relevant, an adaptable mindset and a finger on the pulse of industry innovations are non-negotiable.

7. The Global vs. Local Snare

Misreading New Terrains

Global ambitions are commendable, but without a nuanced understanding of local landscapes, they can backfire.

Case Study: Lowe’s in Australia

Lowe’s, the American home improvement giant, decided to venture into the Australian market, partnering with Woolworths. However, they faced stiff competition from established local players and struggled to understand the unique preferences of the Australian consumer.

Their lack of localization and understanding of the market dynamics led to significant losses, eventually resulting in their exit from Australia in 2016.

Lesson Learned:

Lowe’s Australian adventure stands as a testament to the importance of local market research and understanding. When stepping onto new terrains, a one-size-fits-all approach seldom works. Respecting and adapting to local nuances can make the difference between global success and a costly misstep.

Final Thoughts

In the treacherous journey of business strategy, “The 7 Deadly Snares” loom large, ready to ensnare the unprepared. As we’ve delved into each, it’s clear that these aren’t isolated missteps but intricately connected challenges. Ignoring environmental trends, for instance, can lead to resource misallocations, while directionless leadership might result in neglecting key stakeholders. The domino effect is real.

The holistic approach to strategy is more than just a buzzword — it’s a necessity. Embracing change, constantly re-evaluating positions, and ensuring clarity of vision are fundamental in sidestepping these pitfalls. But more than anything, businesses must remember that the landscape is ever-shifting, and what works today might be tomorrow’s Achilles heel.

To truly thrive, companies must adopt a mindset of perpetual evolution, ensuring that strategy is not a static document gathering dust, but a dynamic compass that points the way forward.

Don’t Just Sit There. Do Something!

We’ve unveiled our tales of strategy gone awry, and now we turn the spotlight to you. Have you, in your professional journey, encountered these snares? Or perhaps faced a unique challenge we’ve yet to explore? We invite you to share your stories and insights.

The business world is vast, and the pitfalls are many, but through collective wisdom and discourse, we can chart safer courses. Let’s further this discussion, learn from one another, and navigate the strategic maze that is the modern business landscape. Your insights might just be the lighthouse another business needs.

post authorNate Schloesser

Nate Schloesser, In his role as UX Design Manager at Paychex, Nate not only oversees the direction and execution of user experience projects but also fosters an environment of innovation and collaboration among his team of designers. His primary focus at Paychex is mentoring designers, ensuring that they develop best-in-class digital interfaces that prioritize user needs. Through his writing, speaking, and workshops, Nate continues to equip, encourage, and teach designers within the larger design community.

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Ideas In Brief
  • The article delves into seven critical strategic snares through real-world case studies, offering valuable lessons for businesses in navigating the complex landscape of modern business strategy.

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