Break the Strategic Planning Cycle
Planning season is upon us and companies large and small are beginning to make preparations for this eagerly anticipated (dreaded) event. Whether expecting to create a whole new strategic direction or just updating the current plan, management teams approach this time of year with emotions ranging from anxiety to enthusiasm to indifference. These emotions are founded in their prior experiences with strategic planning exercises. Some managers and executives, particularly in the “lean” environment of recent years, see themselves as severely overworked and view the strategy event as no more than an unnecessary interruption that will leave them even more deeply buried in work; they will have to work even longer hours to try to catch back up when it is over. More commonly, people see the potential value of strategic planning intellectually, but their real-world experience has demonstrated that in their company it is little more than an event where some great ideas are created that somehow never seem to find their way into action. “Why are we doing this again, nothing ever comes of it?” While this latter attitude is, in far too many companies, both valid and understandable, the good news is that management is entirely capable of controlling and changing it.
Companies will, more often than not, approach strategic planning as a singular event rather than an ongoing process. You have probably either observed or been a part of the drill. Simplistically, the management team goes off to some hotel or resort where they will sit in a meeting room for a couple days to devise or revise the company’s strategy in a session led by an outside facilitator the company has hired for the event. There are some great discussions and ideas are exchanged and recorded on flip-chart pages taped to the walls. When the event ends, everyone has a sense of excitement, of “mission accomplished,” and back to work they go where they pick up where they left off and the daily routine quickly takes over again. The formal strategic plan notebook arrives a few days later where it gets a quick once-over on its way to a prominent and strategically visible place on the shelf. It is as though by its very existence and visibility it will somehow miraculously create change. Then weeks and months go by with the plan rarely if ever consulted as it sits gathering dust; little attention is paid to the document that had generated so much excitement at the time it was created. Soon a whole year has gone by, the cycle repeats and off again we go to plan. This cycle is ineffective and wasteful and requires significant effort and discipline to break it.
The company must acknowledge strategic planning to be an ongoing process rather than the event it has been. Management needs to come to grips with the fact that planning is ongoing and requires their unwavering commitment, that success or failure is derived from what happens after the formal planning session, not the session itself. Follow up and accountability are critical. A plan that never makes it outside the circle of the leadership team is unlikely to succeed. There must be a legitimate effort to translate the poetry of a written plan into action plan prose that people responsible for its implementation can understand, take ownership of and, most importantly, execute. Then comes the heavy lifting—the less exciting and less sexy part. Someone must have the responsibility and authority to drive the plan throughout the company on a daily basis to assure it remains alive and vibrant. This requires identifying the specific goals that must be achieved to realize the strategic direction and defining the measures and targets, the metrics that will define when the company has “arrived.” Each step and each objective is a key part of the puzzle that must be methodically identified and pursued. There must be someone, an individual or team, responsible and accountable for each of those key steps and timeframes for each to occur to ensure the necessary coordination. There must be regular, perhaps quarterly, update sessions where progress toward the accomplishment of goals is reviewed; resources reallocated to assure deviations are brought back on course and plan revisions made if actual experience dictates that a modification to the plan is warranted. While perhaps sounding a bit overwhelming, it is in fact a very realistic effort when it is founded on a clear process to which the company is committed and when it is valued on the same basis as any other internal process leadership deems essential to their success. It is how companies respond when the “rubber meets the road,” what happens after the event, that will determine if the usual strategic planning cycle is broken in favor of success. Consider this; a well implemented mediocre plan is far more valuable than a great plan tucked away on a shelf in someone’s office.
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