The Sharpening Stone – Autopsy Report: Why Good Strategic Plans Die Young

Most of the organizations we encounter would say they do strategic planning.  But when we dig into that a bit, the conversation often sounds something like this:

“Yeah, we last put together a plan about 2 years ago.  We had a few folks in leadership go away for a retreat and produce a plan document. Then we built out a spreadsheet with a few pages of action steps. I can dig it up and to show it to you.”

“How well have you executed on that plan?”

“Honestly, not so well. I can’t say I’ve even looked at it in the past few months. The retreat was great, but after it was over, we all got so busy with the day-to-day fires that we just haven’t been able to give it the attention it deserves.”

If that sounds familiar to you, let me offer a few suggestions for ensuring that your strategic plan serves its purpose as a meaningful driver of organizational performance.

  • First, find a way to engage all of your employees in the process from the start. People take more ownership of things they’ve helped create. And you’ll see stronger execution if everyone in your organization sees some concrete ways that they can personally support the plan. Now, I’m not suggesting you conduct a retreat with 200 people.  But I am recommending that you seek input from all of your employees, and perhaps other stakeholders, before the smaller group assembles to develop the plan.  This can take the form of brief focus groups, surveys, or similar listening mechanisms.  And after you develop your strategic plan, share it with your workforce in an easy-to-understand format, and challenge each individual to formulate at least one action step that they’re willing to be accountable to, that supports advancement of the plan.
  • Second, in creating your plan, keep it fairly simple, perhaps including 3-5 broad strategic priorities, with a small number of sub-priorities under each. You should be able to communicate your plan in a 1-page diagram so that people can grasp and remember it easily. If you get too detailed, rigid, or prescriptive in your plan, you risk losing your ability to adapt as market conditions change or as your competitors bring their game.  Don’t try to map out every action step for the next 2 years, as that can be a trap.  Think about your strategic plan the way a football team may think of a game plan.  Carefully map out the initial plays, and stick with your overall plan.  But stay nimble enough to adapt as the “game” unfolds, using new tactics and action steps that support the plan, as your competitors make their moves and various unforeseen opportunities and challenges arise along the way.
  • And finally, be sure to build in sufficient discipline to stay on top of your strategic priorities. Don’t let a good plan, which took substantial effort and expense to produce, die of neglect. You probably have a regular cadence for monitoring your financials. What if you were to monitor progress on your strategic priorities in a similar manner?  Ensure that your leadership group has a disciplined process for reviewing progress on your strategic priorities, adapting as needed, and bringing accountability to execute.  Maybe that takes the form of a monthly or quarterly meeting entirely devoted to execution of the strategic priorities.

Effective strategic planning can be critical to your organization’s success.  But to get the most out of a strong plan, it helps to engage your people, to communicate your plan in an understandable way, and to build in a disciplined approach to monitoring, adapting, and executing.

About the Author: Rob Skacel, Ph.D.

Rob is a licensed psychologist with senior executive experience. He holds a Bachelor’s degree from Franklin & Marshall College, and Master’s and Doctoral degrees from Purdue University. Rob began his career in the field of clinical psychology, splitting his time between patient care and management responsibilities. Within a few years, he began the transition to business psychology specialization. He has since held senior leadership positions in sizeable for-profit and non-profit organizations, where his responsibilities focused on performance improvement and organizational development.

Rob founded True Edge Performance Solutions in 2000, and maintained it as a part-time venture for a number of years as he continued to accrue executive experience. By 2006, True Edge had grown to the point where it required Rob’s full-time attention. Over the years, Rob has provided services to dozens of leaders and their organizations, in a variety of industry sectors such as manufacturing, professional services, health care, agribusiness, construction, education, non-profit, and trade associations.

The Sharpening Stone

The Sharpening Stone is a series of short videos from True Edge designed to sharpen leaders and their organizations.

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