Six reasons major sales initiatives fail

We’ve all seen a major sales initiative that fails to deliver the results expected, for example from a sales force restructure. But what’s the root cause of the failure? Here I will explore the reasons hidden in the background and the ways in which they can be successfully overcome. From poorly-handled internal politics to lack of sponsorship; from factual bias to weak or inflexible planning; the same obstacles that stand in the way of a product launch also apply to business restructuring as well as shifts in sales strategy. Knowing what the stumbling blocks are and how to conquer them is vital to the successful execution of major sales initiatives.

Having reviewed recent literature on the topics of change initiatives, sales management and behavioural management, I distilled the key barriers to success down to these six:

What are the barriers to success?

  1. Personal bias and blinkered thinking
  2. Poor understanding of the market and sales context
  3. Failure to address dissenting behaviour
  4. Muddled and ineffective planning
  5. Lack of leadership/ ownership
  6. Failure to follow-through

Whilst these barriers may seem intuitive, they are commonly overlooked in practice. I think the root cause of this oversight is often an unconscious avoidance of the work it takes to do things properly. With this in mind, I wanted to outline how to succeed for those readers who have the strength of character to do it right.

How do we mitigate against failure?

Understanding and acting within the right context is very important.

Using the decline of Sony from its pre-eminences in the 80s and 90s as a case study, Sohrab Vossoughi points out in HBR that “a great strategy is only great in context” and “all the hard work in the world won’t matter if you’re working toward a strategy that was framed for an another era”. Message: don’t let your decisions become biased by entrenched assumptions about the way things should be done. Re-assess reality.

I want to continually improve how accurately I see reality. This also means questioning my own views. The skill here is for “strategic decision-making leaders to recognize *their own *biases”1. In order to avoid bias during the decision making process, it is crucial not only that you ask the right questions, but also that you ask the right people2. Don’t just invite your direct reports and usual leaders: go wider, skip levels and look for disruptive thinkers.

McKinsey provides an insightful guide to mitigate flaws in strategic decision-making, which – along with the other key articles I’ve sourced – is worth reading. In short, successful strategic planning3 has these qualities:

  • Stakeholders shared all critical information
  • Actively sought evidence contrary to initial plan
  • Truly innovative ideas were allowed to reach senior management
  • Dissenting voices were given ample opportunity to express themselves.


Of course, you shouldn’t be afraid to trust your own instincts, just remember to consider bias. Don’t assume you are viewing reality with perfect clarity. Consider these tests by the authors4 of Think Again:

  1. The familiarity test: have we frequently experienced identical or similar situations?
  2. The feedback test: did we get reliable feedback in past situations?
  3. The measured-emotions test: are the emotions we have experienced in similar or related situations measured?
  4. The independence test: are we likely to be influenced by any inappropriate personal interests or attachments?


Always ask yourself ‘Does this strategy balance commitment and flexibility?’ Once you are clear on a robust strategy, make sure it can be adapted to suit a changing situation. Next ask yourself ‘Is there conviction to act on the strategy?’5  This is one of several recommended tests, which essentially ask whether it will actually work.**

Don’t let your sales initiative fail because of ‘AWOL Sponsors’, where the leadership you are relying on do not provide the political clout, time, or energy to see a project through6. Make sure everybody is on board with the strategy and that the leadership is committed to seeing the project through.

It would be better to qualify out of an initiative than to invest yourself in one which will fail due to lack of executive sponsorship.

How to assure effective execution

Instead of hoping your planning process is robust, reflect on the steps you’re taking, on how you make decisions and the quality of input, and your next major sales initiative can be a success. You should:

  • Build on unbiased facts
  • Deal openly with dissent and internal concerns
  • Construct a robust yet flexible plan
  • Ensure the full commitment of the sponsor.

Pay attention to the decision process itself.

Think about how you go about making a decision, and consider how you will execute on the decision. Don’t be seduced by the fun part of making the decision. The lists I’ve provided let you decide on how you will make the decision by considering the requisite preconditions and subsequent actions required to ensure success.

1. McKinsey, the case for behavioural strategy.
2. McKinsey, seven steps to better brainstorming.
3. McKinsey, flaws in strategic decision-making.
4. McKinsey, how to test your decision-making instincts.
5. McKinsey, have you tested your strategy lately?
6. The Concours Group and VitalSmarts, Silence Fails.