warning strategic planning failure

Why You Need to Consider Failure

You need to plan for failure. 

Yes, you read that correctly – you need to plan for failure. 

The reason for this is simple.  Things rarely go as planned.  We live in a world of constant and sometimes incredible change – and when change happens, our plans can become extremely ineffective. 

Leadership is about handling these difficult times with a clear vision, and that makes planning for potential failure important.  And let’s be honest, no one enjoys those highly emotional “the sky is falling” meetings where everyone is reacting.  They are meetings that are seldom productive or effective. 

Unfortunately, when we go through our typical strategic planning process, we tend to be incredibly optimistic and focus on only those tasks and milestones necessary to implement an effective process that produces a successful outcome.  We tend to plan for the desired, overlooking and ignoring the undesirable possibilities.   

Then, when we miss milestones and projected results, we find ourselves reacting during a time of heightened emotions.  

That’s not a good place to be. 

According to Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, each year more than 30,000 new consumer products are launched, and 80% of them fail. 


Incorporate some time into your strategic planning process for exploring failure. Bring your team into a conference room and have everyone write down every possible reason they can think of for the failure.

What if a key member of faculty leaves? 

What if you can’t hire qualified faculty to teach the courses? 

What if the program doesn’t gain the necessary approvals on the projected timeline? 

What if no qualified prospective students respond to our recruitment efforts? 

What if another institution launches a similar program before we launch? 

What if the first class of students goes public with their dissatisfaction with the program? 

Remember that this is a brainstorming session, so no suggestion is wrong or too outlandish.  Also, remember that this is the time for identifying reasons the program could fail, so there is no discussion of solutions at this point. 

Once you have developed a list of all possible reasons for failure, go through the list and put aside all the reasons that are outside your control and unlikely to happen. Then, with those remaining, rank the top 10 based on those that most likely to cause the program to fail. Put aside any issue that isn’t seen to be significant enough to cause the failure of the program and focus on only those likely obstacles that could bring the program to an untimely demise.  

Your last step in this process is to have the team work on solutions for those major reasons. Make sure the solutions are detailed actions plans that identify the symptoms associated with the reason/obstacle. And make certain there is a step-by-step process to follow with tasks, owners, milestones, and budget that takes you to an agreed upon conclusion.   

Keep in mind that failure does happen despite our best efforts, so the agreed upon conclusion can include an exit strategy that maps out how to shut down the program. Though closing down a program is never a happy conclusion to all the hard work – having that mapped out at the start, with a proactive, rational solution is a much better place to be than reacting to uncertainty and a flood of emotions from faculty, staff, students, and other key stakeholders.

Written by

Strategic turnaround consultant and writer.

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