Staying on plan with a strategic plan

Hearing a CEO say “we are on plan,” as in they are, “staying on their organization’s strategic plan,” is music to the ears of everyone, most especially shareholders. It means the organization and its employees have met key strategic milestones along the way to wherever the company is going. It means they made a promise – to themselves and others – and they stuck to it. Almost no other “regular” action in business is harder.

Developing a strategic plan and sticking to it are two completely different activities.

In my experience, most organizations that actually DO strategic planning enjoy it, but few who stick to their plans would say the process was fun – rewarding maybe, but not fun. I don’t know what the failure rate for staying “on plan” is, but I suspect it is higher than most companies or organizations let on.

What causes the failure is the inability of the people tasked with executing on the plan to do so. Sometimes the failure is a result of incompetence, but it’s more likely to be the result of having unrealistic expectations on the people, structure and environment needed for the plan to work. A plan that can’t be executed isn’t a plan – it’s a fantasy. Far too many companies develop plans that are destined to fail from the get go.

Here is what we notice about companies that develop executable plans from fantasies. Effective strategic plans have at least 10 similar characteristics. They….

  1. begin with the end in mind. A good plan takes the time and words to tell the story of the desired future state so everyone can see and feel how things will be different when progress is made.
  2. are preceded by a courageous assessment of the organization’s true capabilities, market factors, and capacities of the employees.
  3. include a plan for how to do the required change management activities to drive sustained success. Strategic plans almost always involve change. Not having a plan for how to manage that change is a mistake.
  4. align the culture and structure of the organization with the plan. This is probably the #1 mistake planning groups make as they prep their strategy.
  5. are easy to understand and deliver practical returns and results.
  6. are manageable and relatively simple to track and administer. If they are too complex to track, they won’t be (tracked, that is).
  7. illustrate and describe enough steps to show people how to “get there.”
  8. have built-in action steps to teach people how to engage and support the strategy.
  9. have built-in feedback loops to show progress, or lack thereof.
  10. define the decision-making and accountability structure for who does what.

All of these characteristics lead to effective strategic plan execution.

Execution is the hard work that brings the plan to life, and it’s as much a part of strategic planning as visioning, brainstorming new ideas and exploring all the “what if’s…” that make plans stick.

The Association for Strategic Planning (ASP) is a U.S.-based, non-profit professional association dedicated to advancing thought and practice in strategy development and deployment. They created the Lead-Think-Plan-Act rubric and accompanying Body of Knowledge to capture and disseminate best practice in the field of strategic planning and management. ASP also is pretty good at evaluating and assessing strategic planning frameworks.

The next time you decide to embark on a strategic plan development process, remember to continually ask yourself and the other planners “can we realistically execute on this (refer to the above 10 points)?” If not, is it a plan or a fantasy?

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