Why good strategies fail

Addressing the three critical strategic tensions

Explore three critical strategic tensions—incoherence, incongruence, and inconsistency—their root causes and how to make sure that they don’t prevent your strategy from realizing its full potential.


Much has been written in management books, white papers, and news articles about how to craft a winning strategy. Scholars, strategy executives, management consultants, and business gurus alike, all have a formula for how to identify opportunities to advance an organization’s aspiration, architect a plan of attack, orchestrate resource allocation, and coordinate execution of priority initiatives. Developing a well-crafted strategy takes time, effort, money, intellectual commitment, and political capital. If you have ever led or participated in a strategic planning process, you know the drill.

But what happens when your strategy doesn’t work as intended? What happens when your strategy falls short of delivering the expected results?

The question of "why isn’t my strategy working?" is asked more often than many executives would like to admit. Yet, there is very little in the strategy literature that can help companies troubleshoot their strategy execution, isolate the causes of friction, and deploy mitigating and corrective actions.

In this article, we aim to bridge that gap. We explore three critical strategic tensions—incoherence, incongruence, and inconsistency—their root causes, how to identify them, and how to make sure that they don’t prevent your strategy from realizing its full potential.

Strategy as a set of contextualized, integrated, and self-reinforcing choices

At Deloitte, we like to articulate strategy as "an integrated set of self-reinforcing choices that positions the firm to create sustainable advantage relative to competition and to generate superior financial returns". Those five integrated choices are:

• What is your winning aspiration?
• Where will you play?
• How will you win?
• What capabilities must you have?
• What management systems must be in place?

Strategic choice cascade

This framework is presented in detail in the business strategy book, Playing to win: How strategy really works, co-authored by A.G. Lafley and Roger L. Martin.

Those five choices, however, are not made in a vacuum. On the contrary, they must be considered in context of what those anointed with the responsibility of making those choices fundamentally believe in regarding the world around them, including the external environment (e.g., consumer behavior and attitudes, channel structure, competitive dynamics, technology disruption, regulatory and legislative landscape), and internal dynamics (e.g., core competencies, strategic assets, sources of advantage, capability gaps, management preference, investment capacity, cultural bias). Collectively, we call those fundamental beliefs "orthodoxies". Whether grounded on facts or perception, orthodoxies inform, influence, and shape strategic choices.

Back to top

Why good strategies go awry

In our experience, when a strategy goes awry, the culprit can be found among three main sources of friction: Let’s explore them, one at a time.

Avoiding strategic tensions: Keep your strategy on track

Not seeing a strategy deliver its intended impact can be extremely frustrating for business leaders trying to drive superior performance. The good news, however, is that it is possible to diagnose and trouble-shoot the underlying issues.

Make no mistake: There is no such thing as "seamless execution". Issues will happen. Understanding the three critical tensions—incoherence, incongruence, and inconsistence—is crucial to either avoid them, or to identify and resolve them.

Ultimately, if you find yourself "stuck", we are here to help. Deloitte's extensive experience helping clients develop and implement their strategies gives us a first-hand view on the good, the bad, and the ugly; how to identify potential problems, and, more importantly, how to take mitigating or corrective action. That can make the difference between a strategy that falls short and one that leads to success.

sticky notes

Want to learn more or to explore further?

Here are three easy ways to continue the dialog…

  • Schedule a conversation. Let’s continue the dialogue with you and your team, either by phone or in-person.
  • Leverage our self-assessment tool. Our diagnostic tool offers an easy and effective way to identify where the biggest sources of tension in your strategy may be.
  • Request a ‘Playing to Win Lab’. A day-long immersive experience designed to pressure-test your current strategy along three main sources of tension.

Monitor Deloitte

To navigate the future with confidence, organizations need to make the right choices: Clear, timely and inspirational choices that deliver growth in a dynamic, disrupted world. Monitor Deloitte’s strategy practitioners combine deep industry insights with cutting edge methods to help leaders resolve their most critical decisions, drive value, and achieve transformational success.

This publication contains general information only, and none of the member firms of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited, its member firms, or their related entities (collective, the “Deloitte Network”) is, by means of this publication, rendering professional advice or services. Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your business, you should consult a qualified professional adviser. No entity in the Deloitte Network shall be responsible for any loss whatsoever sustained by any person who relies on this publication.

As used in this document, “Deloitte” means Deloitte Consulting LLP, a subsidiary of Deloitte LLP. Please see for a detailed description of the legal structure of Deloitte USA LLP, Deloitte LLP and their respective subsidiaries. Certain services may not be available to attest clients under the rules and regulations of public accounting.

[1] A.G. Lafley and Roger L. Martin; Playing to win: How strategy really works; 2013.

Fullwidth SCC. Do not delete! This box/component contains JavaScript that is needed on this page. This message will not be visible when page is activated.

Did you find this useful?