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Is it better to have a great strategy implemented badly or a bad strategy implemented well?

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I was at a presentation where Robin Speculand, Singapore-based author and speaker, asked:

Is it better to have a great strategy implemented badly or a bad strategy implemented well?

Most people – about 4 out of 5 – raised their hand for the latter option. I raised mine for the former.

We had a bit of debate about the whole thing, and most people felt it would be more desirable to have a great strategy implemented badly, as at least you would be heading in the right direction. Wrong. A great strategy implemented badly is no strategy at all, because you haven’t executed. You’ve done nothing. You’re moving nowhere. At least a bad strategy implemented well has got you moving, and you can change the strategy as you go along.

Robin then pointed out the stupidity of the question anyway, as who rolls out a bad strategy?  There are no bad strategies at the time they are announced. They’re just bad strategies in hindsight, when you see what else is happening.

What bank CEO will gather his people and say: “here’s my strategy for the bank; I know it’s rubbish, but bear with me”. No. Of course not. Everyone starts with a great strategy they think. They only know it’s bad or great after the fact however. Do you think the CEOs of Nokia or Kodak consciously said that a great strategy would be to ignore the iPhone and the digital cameras? Let’s just plod on doing what we’ve always done. Of course not. They just didn’t see how overwhelmingly compelling the new kids on the block were.

Equally, according to Robin, two-thirds of strategies never get implemented. They are announced in a great fanfare, and then the leadership team think that it’ll get done. I’ve never seen a company with a strategy get that strategy implemented without the leadership team being fully engaged.

And I guess this is where I’m coming from when I keep having a go at banks leadership teams being fundamentally flawed.  First, their strategies for digital transformation must be formed with a strong technology leadership input. That means there must be a C-level member(s) who has professional technology experience as part of the digital transformation program and strategy team. Second, all of the leadership team must be engaged in the strategy and make it happen.

Too often, the strategy I see for digital banking is to elect some people from around the organisation to be Chief Digital Officers – note there’s usually one per line of business – and then they are delegated the action to make the bank digital. Half the time, they don’t even define what digital actually means and the other half of the time, they don’t recognise that making the bank digital is a culture, organisation and leadership change program, not just a project.

That is why many banks are finding that their digital transformation projects are failing – it just doesn’t have the right composure. I keep coming back to Maile Carnegie’s comments about the frozen middle.

The frozen middle si the frozen middle management who see digital as a threat to their jobs, their lines of business, their rewards and their livelihoods. Many do not see the reason to convert their physical structures – offices and humans – into digital ones, and resist the change for that reason. Even if they believe in it, if their rewards structures are not geared up to incentivise digital change, then they’ll just ignore the strategy. That is why strong leadership is required as it must clearly show the way forward and punish those who resist. Initially, it starts with the carrot – please join this journey and here is the future world you’ll live in – but then it must revert to the stick if the frozen middle block the change.

Too often, the determination to drive the strategy through the frozen middle is lost amongst the leadership team as other things come along – fines, sanctions, regulations, new competitors and so on and so forth. As a result, the strategy joins the deep freeze in the frozen middle.

I guess I’d sum it up when I was leading a change program in one of the big IT firms. I flew around the world meeting the management teams and explaining the strategy, and giving them briefings and materials to support the concepts and content I wanted them to follow. Finally, one day, a friend in one of the countries was honest with me and said you’re just like all those other seagull managers out there. I hadn’t heard the term before, so I asked him what he meant. He said you fly over here and drop a load of shit on us and then fly out again. We accept that you do this and then, once you’ve flown away, we wipe everything clean and carry on doing what we’ve always done. As long as we deliver the results, no one cares.

It was a sad indictment but true. It made me realise that my strategy would never be implemented unless the results we looked for were changed to support my ideas too. It is the old saying:

  • What you measure is what you get.
  • What you measure first is what gets priority.
  • What you measure first and reward, gets done.



Chris Skinner Author Avatar

Chris M Skinner

Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog,, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal's Financial News. To learn more click here...

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