Strategic Planning Only Works With Implementation

Strategic planning only helps organizations when they are kept active and implemented. The strategic plan defines the business direction. That direction is based on the future, the vision of the company. Before an effective strategic plan can be developed a clear and compelling vision is needed. Visions are optimistic, the ideal picture of the future. The strategic plan that results from the leadership team’s strategic planning is the map to that vision and then it is only effective if it is implemented.

Strategic plans can sound intimidating and overwhelming to many small business owners. The most effective strategic plans are those that are simple, completed with the leadership team and key people in the company. Complex documents that consume excessive amounts of time to create don’t guarantee success. In fact, the large and cumbersome strategic plan can be so overwhelming that it just doesn’t work. Strategic planning sessions that go on and on for months also fail because so much time is consumed in the planning and the implementation, which is the key, is pushed aside. The goal to have the perfect strategic plan doesn’t produce results. Instead, the team that engages in strategic planning and produces a good working document is more likely to succeed.

To create your strategic plan:

Start with vision. Write down what you envision for the future. What does the future of your business look like? What do you want for the future? Vision stories are inspiring, it’s your dream. Once you have created your vision you can begin building strategies.

The vision is the destination, where you are going. The strategies are the map that gets you to the vision. Company values are the guide or the “compass” in our map metaphor for making decisions along the way. Values keep you oriented and in alignment. When values are out of alignment the company is off track; not moving in the direction of the vision.

Strategic goals can be limited to the top 6-10. By having fewer goals the plan is able to stay alive and in front of you and the team. By alive, it means that the plan is always where you can see it, use it and keep working on it. It means that the team is focused on the strategic goals at all times, talking about them, brainstorming on them and reporting to each other their successes and challenges.

To set strategies for your business first look at the vision, the different aspects of the vision. Brainstorm all of the goals, all of the strategies for each aspect of the vision. With brainstorming it is important to get all of the ideas out and write them down without judging them or editing them. Often the best idea comes from an idea that at first look seemed too wild or crazy. Ideas jump off of other ideas.

Once you have brainstormed all of the possible goals, prioritize them. Often strategic goals can be grouped with similar strategies. This can help in the prioritization process. The goal is to narrow the list down to the top 6-10 strategies. What are the goals or strategies that will give your business the future you envision, that will create a breakthrough that will produce the results that you want? Those are the goals that you should be selecting as top priorities.

Creating a powerful strategic plan is just one of the first steps. Many organizations have strategic plans that are well thought out and crafted. Where they fall short is in the implementation of that plan. Implementation is the key. If you fail to implement, the results will not be what you set out to achieve.

Implementation is the result of focused and continuous action. Strategic plans don’t just happen on their own: they require your attention. By keeping the plan in front of you and the team responsible for the plan, focus is maintained. Regular meetings about the plan also keep the plan moving in the right direction. Check-in meetings hold people accountable. When teams don’t meet and don’t keep their eye on the plan, the day to day interferes and the status quo remains. In order to make changes in the results that you achieve there has to be intention and commitment on the part of the team. The check-in meeting gives the team the opportunity to review what is happening, what is interfering with the results they want and need and make the changes necessary to change the outcomes. Through the intention of the leadership, the plan and the team, the culture of the workplace can shift from one of non-performance to one of performance focused.

Performance focused companies are companies that are thriving. The energy of high performing teams shifts the energy of the whole organization. It becomes more positive and contagious. People become excited about the vision, the plan and their implementation of the plan. Results create energy and excitement that keeps the plan moving, it propels the plan and the ultimate results of the company.

Organizations that produce results have a clear vision of the future; have a plan that is simple and strategic; and they work on the plan all the time. Their actions are designed to move that plan forward. They don’t let themselves or others get in the way. Through effective strategic planning and by implementing the strategic plan organizations achieve results.

Why a Strategic Plan is Important

As consultants, we work with a variety of businesses across a number of industries as well as non-profit entities. In reviewing the performance of these organizations, it is interesting to note that those businesses that perform at the highest levels usually have some sort of formalized strategic plan in place and have implemented it well.

On the other hand, those businesses that struggle usually have no plan in place and seem to flounder in their attempts to be successful. And many of the organizations that are successful in the implementation of their strategic plans use a simplified strategic planning process to get the plan written and implemented more quickly and efficiently. One of the things that caused some to proclaim that strategic planning had lost it luster was the tendency of some to drag out the process too long and to create more work than necessary. The simplified, rapid development approach has helped immensely in getting good strategic plans developed and implemented.

In order for a business to be successful, there needs to be a road map for success. The development of sound business strategy is a result of the strategic planning process. A significant mistake that is made by businesses large and small is defining critical business strategies without going through this process. A strategic plan helps to provide direction and focus for all employees. It points to specific results that are to be achieved and establishes a course of action for achieving them.

Another common mistake is simply allowing the organization to wander aimlessly without having even generalized goals in place. Having well defined goals, objectives, strategies and tactics reduces the risk of business failure and helps increase the likelihood of solid success. And speaking strictly from the perspective of a manager, owner, director, president, CEO, etc., their own success can be defined by having a well developed strategic plan in place that is well implemented.

A strategic plan helps the various work units within an organization to align themselves with common goals. But perhaps most importantly, the strategic planning process provides managers, owners and entrepreneurs the necessary framework for developing sound business strategy.

Arguably, the leading cause of business failure is not having a strategic plan in place that is implemented effectively. If a business has little idea where it is headed, it will wander aimlessly with priorities changing constantly and employees confused about the purpose of their jobs. And it could chase strategies that have little or no chance of success.

Building a strategic plan is not difficult. It will take some thought and some feedback from customers and others, but businesses should be routinely garnering feedback from appropriate constituent groups on an ongoing basis. The process of developing a strategic plan should be rewarding for all involved and usually helps develop stronger communications between members of the planning team.

Managers and business owners need a well developed strategic plan in order to effectively establish expectations for their employees. Without a plan, expectations are developed in a void and there is little or no alignment with common goals and strategies. A good strategic plan looks out 2 to 5 years and describes clearly what market, product/service, pricing, marketing and other strategies will be followed. In short, it defines how the business will grow and prosper over the defined planning horizon.

Strategic planning does not end once the plan is put on paper. Once developed, the key to making the plan work is a commitment to seeing it through coupled with sound implementation. Unfortunately too many good strategic plans end up on a shelf gathering dust without being even partially implemented. The commitment to not only creating a sound strategic plan, but to its full implementation must be made at the beginning of the planning process.

The strategic plan will contain an action plan that will detail the steps to be taken in order to fully implement the strategies and tactics defined in the plan document. And that action plan will delineate specific deadlines and individuals or teams responsible for completing defined tasks.

Far too many organizations, large and small, fail to develop even basic strategic plans. The absence of a strategic plan is one of the key reasons many businesses struggle or fail. Without that road map provided by a solid strategic plan, decisions are made in a vacuum and/or there is considerable confusion and inconsistency evident within the organization. During tough economic times, the need for a solid strategic direction and plan is even more pronounced because the margin for error generally becomes smaller for most businesses.

All employees need to understand the guiding principles of the business and what everyone should be aiming to achieve. A strategic plan that is well developed, properly communicated, and carefully implemented can launch struggling or underperforming businesses to new heights.

Take a look at your business. Are your critical business strategies well defined? Are they successful? Does there seem to be a lack of focus on where the company is headed? Does everyone clearly understand the goals for the business? Strategically, how will the business achieve those goals? Is your current planning horizon longer than one year? Are you developing annual business/operating plans without a strategic plan in place? Strategic plans should drive or at least help define operating plans and budgets.

Writing a strategic plan isn’t as complicated as some would lead you to believe. Simplified strategic planning has been our focus for some time because too many organizations get caught up in the process and lose sight of what is important. We have found, without exception, that businesses which create and execute sound strategic plans are generally far more successful than those that do not. Remember that successful implementation of the plan is a must. If you write a plan and then allow it to gather dust on a shelf, you might as well have no plan. There must be a commitment to implementing the strategies and tactics detailed in the plan.

Make no mistake about it, if your business or non-profit organization is operating without an effective strategic plan in place, it runs the risk of underperforming or even failure. As mentioned, writing a strategic plan is not difficult and it does not have to be overly time consuming.

The notion that strategic planning has to be a long arduous process to be successful is complete nonsense. In fact, our experience clearly points to a far more successful planning experience and better plans when the plan is completed without a lot of “bureaucracy” and extraneous analyses.

Operationalizing Your Strategic Plan

We have all experienced it. The dreaded process of spending hours upon hours creating a strategic business plan that maps out the goals of the organization. We develop the targets and create lofty initiatives only to see the year come and go as we scratch our heads and wonder why we didn’t achieve all our goals. The plan may have been solid, but the execution was flawed.

I have witnessed countless examples in my career where companies establish strategic goals for the organization, but fail to create an operational process to hit those goals. There is a disproportionate amount of time spent on the strategy compared with the detailed tactical plan of executing against that strategy. All too often, managers attempt to point their teams toward the strategic end game, but provide little guidance of the step-by-step tactics in order to get there.

The strategy is the sexiness of the plan, the tactical execution, not so much. Often, in order to achieve the strategic goal, the discipline required for executing the vision is the equivalent of “watching paint dry”. It is not that fun to be a grinder. But grinding through the minutiae with a well thought through execution plan is often the difference between success and failure. I will take a team of grinders over a team of strategists every time.

Here are some hints to converting your strategic business plan into an actionable series of tactics:

Write An Actionable Plan: Business plans come in many shapes and sizes. Strategic business plans should provide financial targets to achieve, high-level strategic initiatives to reach those targets and an overarching philosophy in which the company operates. In my experience, this is the easiest part of the task – identifying core areas of the business that needs to be addressed. Much like putting together a household budget, it is easy to say, “pay off the mortgage” or “save for college”, the larger challenge is actually doing it! Write the strategic plan with action steps in mind.

Morph Strategy To Tactical: A business plan that hits the mark is one that not only identifies the strategic direction of the company, but also maps out the tactical elements that enable the company to execute on the plan. This is where most companies fail to deliver. They fail to operationalize their strategic plan into tactical initiatives. Why are these strategies going to deliver the greatest return on investment and effort? How are they going to complete and deliver on their strategic plan? Who is responsible for all of the steps required to execute? Where and in what part of the company are these strategies executed?

Cascade Throughout Team: The strategic plan generally comes from the top and it is up to each of the department heads to internalize these plans and cascade the tactics throughout their teams. Specific tasks should be assigned with timetables to ensure that initiatives are being executed on-time and on-plan. Each day, week and month should be mapped by the team in milepost form in order achieve the end result. Again, like saving for college, it has to be a methodical, disciplined approach that sets aside monies weekly or monthly in order to save enough over a prolonged period of time. A manager sets the benchmark, helps the team lay out the tactics and mileposts, and then holds their time accountable to achieving those mileposts.

Set Targeted Benchmarks: In my opinion, this is the single-most important item in being able to deliver on a strategic plan – delivering on action plans in a step-by-step fashion. Fifteen years ago I had back surgery that stopped my days of running. I have since taken to walking- a lot of walking. In fact, this year, since I fly from Raleigh to Boston quite frequently for business, I set an annual target of walking the equivalent of Raleigh to Boston and back to Raleigh – roughly 1,225 miles. The strategic goal was set; the tactical goal was approximately 3.36 miles a day, every day for the year. I can’t walk 1,225 in a day so armed with my Nike Plus system that measures my miles; I stay abreast of my progress every day with an eye on the end goal. My daily monitoring operationalizes the strategic goal by breaking it down into daily tasks. At the time of this writing and some 290+ days into the year, I am averaging 3.41 miles a day.

Monitor Weekly & Monthly: My walking example above lays credence to the old adage “You Can’t Manage What You Don’t Measure”. The management of my tactical execution of an overall strategic goal not only indicates that I am on target, but also provides the inspiration to stay on task. Achieving strategic success is one part execution and one part inspiration. Hitting mileposts on a regular basis provides the ongoing desire to see the plan to its full fruition. Setting up monitoring mileposts not only keeps the taskmaster on plan, but also allows for the manager to communicate these successes to their peers. Strategic targets can be daunting at the onset, but breaking them down into “chunkables” makes achieving them manageable.