Photo by Anna Shvets
I am a management consultant. I specialize in supporting organizations of all kinds in their efforts to develop, streamline, gap-assess and execute strategic plans. So, it may sound odd, coming from someone like me, that strategic plans (or operational plans or business plans or whatever fancy name you like to give them) are not all that they’re cracked up to be.
I have personally been the victim of egregious planning programs on countless occasions throughout my career, and truth be told, I have also subjected many hapless victims to said planning torture in my time in management. None of it with bad intention of course, but all in the name good and necessary business process. I reached a point, however, that many obvious truths began to emerge:
Truth #1 – The time, energy and expense of an organization-wide strategic planning effort is extraordinary, but few organizations care to measure the actual cost. Probably because we would then have to figure out if THE PLAN actually yielded results that justified the expenditure.
Truth #2 – Strategic plans generally end up lonely on a shelf unshared and unread, filed away in some remote digital folder not to be seen again until it’s time to justify performance, or simply abandoned to changing realities or new management.
Truth #3 – The measurement of strategic goals is rarely tangible, and often fails to address how, or even if, the goals defined support the purpose, growth or survival of the organization.
Truth #4 –Probably worst of all, strategic plans don’t often tell people anything more than what they already know about their job, what they need to do, and why they should do it, much less about how they themselves are furthering the vision and mission of the organization. Apparently, strategic plans have little to do with how the day-to-day work actually gets done.
For someone who does what I do, this isn’t just a bitter pill to swallow. It’s more like a tennis ball covered in peanut butter without a drop of water in sight.
Strategic plans don’t often tell people anything more than what they already know about their job, what they need to do, and why they should do it, much less about how they themselves are furthering the vision and mission of the organization.
All humor aside, the dismal statistics on the successful execution of strategy that have been rolling on for decades with little improvement gives further credence to the fact that the form-over-function planning approach so prevalent in our management culture today is an expensive and crippling problem; and it’s agonizing to watch when you’re looking from the outside in. Correcting it and setting a new standard for simplified and more effective planning systems is something that is going to take the proverbial ‘village’ of bright minds and out-of-the-box management thinkers to solve. I was recently re-reading Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall’s Nine Lies About Work, and I was particularly drawn to Lie #2 – The Best Plan Wins (it actually spurred the writing of this particular blog.)
I had the pleasure of seeing Marcus speak at a Dave Ramsey (love Dave!) Entreleadership conference a couple of years ago. His humor, intelligence and humility made it easy to question the normal state of things, making me rethink what I thought I knew about good management without feeling like a schmuck for my ignorance. That, my friends, is a gift.
Anyway, in laying out the evidence that supports the reality of Lie #2, what I took away from Marcus and Ashley’s work is that by the time a plan is done, it is likely obsolete, and if that plan did nothing to inform and empower those on the front lines to make decisions in real time, responding to the subtle shifts and emerging realities that they see before anyone else, then it really did nothing at all.
This resonated at a very deep level with me and further informed the Essential Strategy approach that I continue to hone within my own practice. Organizations don’t thrive because they have a beautiful, spiral-bound, high-gloss, 100-page plan sitting on the desk of every executive and hapless manager charged with excavating and interpreting its deepest meaning.
In other words, it requires that we inform and empower people throughout the organization to use the brain in their head to navigate, assess and determine the direction to move in order to support the overall direction of the organization.
Too often I find that a client puts so much effort into hitting a goal (which may or may not have any basis whatsoever in reality) that they barely scratch the surface of whether or not they are sufficiently aligned, equipped and capable of achieving that goal; and never mind whether said goal actually supports and/or will deliver on the vision of the organization or meet the needs of its intended customers. This is tied to the second thing I regularly see which is a hyper-focus on growth because purpose is assumed and therefore not in need of discussion, and survival is…. well we just don’t like really talking about that.
Now, queue the questions.
So, Erin, do we forsake strategic planning? How do you ‘do’ without a plan? Is it just a throw the darts at the board kind of thing? Do you have any idea how much we’ve invested in the planning tools, reports and metrics? Surely you don’t mean that we should cancel our annual retreats to somewhere cool and fun?!?
Don’t panic. Let me clarify:
YES – strategic planning is vital to the organization regardless of your size, industry or complexity. If we avoid or shortchange the process of visualizing and mapping a path to achieve the future-state we want and understanding what it will take to get there, then success is haphazard at best. My point here is that the endgame for the planning process should not be a behemoth of a plan that will simply be filed with other Secret Squirrel Stuff never to be seen again until we are ready to torture people with performance reviews or run the next planning gauntlet.
Which leads me to say this:
It’s not about the plans we create. It’s actually about the system we create for intelligent learning that informs and empowers people to take action and make decisions that further the purpose and intent of the organization. This is, at its core, what strategy is really about. Do we have to write things down? Of course we do – magic happens when we put things on paper. However, it is WHAT we put on the paper that really matters.
A Strategic Plan IS:
1. A living document for creating growth and resiliency in order to fulfill the defined purpose of the organization.
2. It anticipates change, with built-in mechanisms designed to continually monitor, adjust and adapt as needed.
3. It requires a system of processes to pull in, analyze and quantify the impact of continually changing information about the internal and external environments to support timely decision-making.
4. It requires informed and empowered people to execute the day-to-day work that furthers the strategy that delivers the vision.
A Strategic Plan Is NOT:
1. A secret to be kept from all but the c-suite.
2. An endless cascade of dictates, metrics and goals at every level of the organization.
3. A plan that is disconnected from daily operations.
4. A set of goals that are irrelevant or removed from supporting the purpose, growth and survival of the organization.