The first sign is the use of fancy words – the rhetorical laundry list. Beware of disintermediation, monetisation, customer-centric, synergy and disruption. If it isn’t plain English, then chances are it is style over substance.
We are also allergic to “apple pie” strategies. These are strategies which emphasise that the organisation will excel at what everyone acknowledges as important. “Excellent cleanliness” is not a strategy for a hospital. Aspiring to give “excellent customer service” for a bank is just what all banks aspire to. These are not strategies, but part of the specification for the service. We are not saying there isn’t merit in truly excelling at something competitors are failing at, it is just that a strategy cannot comprise doing the very thing that defines the sector.
Strategy is all about choice. And it must be a clear choice. So that means it also has to be clear on what you don’t do. A strategy that does not have “edges” is just not very useful. The Charities Commission have a well-crafted strategy which sets out a clear problem and with a solution approach of legislation. For its employees, there is no ambiguity. They are not tempted to achieve the desired outcome by means other than legislation.
Sometimes we see “to do” lists pretending to be strategies. Often it starts from some sensible goal – say “improve education in Scotland” – but gets broken down into tasks to combat truancy, improve infrastructure, invest in IT and dozens of other things that contribute to the goal. Restating that list as “strategy” misses the point.
This is not a complete list of how to spot bad strategy, but I have one more to add: the “elephant-in-the-room”. You cannot be serious about a strategy that ignores fundamental changes in the landscape like Covid-19, Brexit, recession and supply-chain damage. Digital trends, climate change, market entrants or demographic shifts probably impact you too. Strategy always needs to consider the landscape of customers, suppliers, competitors, new entrants and technology change.