Posted by Bill Dann

by Bill Dann, CEO Professional Growth Systems

As I mentioned in the last newsletter, we are seeing a good deal of interest on our web-site regarding a “strategic planning template” (def. a pattern used as a guide in making something).  We currently are in design stages for making such a template available to those seeking a tool rather than a complete strategic planning process. Having said that, though, in our experience a plan that really serves or delivers comes from a blend of sound process and facilitation as well as design of the template.  It is hard to separate the two or gauge the relative importance of each.

As you consider your own strategic plan and the process used to create it, I wanted to share the principles that we adhere to with Vision Navigation®, PGS’ strategic planning process.  Both current literature and our own experience confirm that there are principles which are vital to creating a plan that will truly add value to an organization. And these principles address inherent problems with the majority of strategic planning processes. To understand the value of the principles, it is best to start with understanding.

Causal factors in poorly performing strategic plans

My partner, Doug, and I designed the initial version of our strategic planning product, Vision Navigation®, 25 years ago.  Though there have been many enhancements since then, the principles underlying our initial design continue to serve our clients today.

We were prompted to design a new approach based on the experience each of us had had with planning systems that failed us as managers or that had not worked for our early clients.  There came a day on a long airplane flight when we were able to isolate and name what we believed were the causal factors of plans under-performing.  Correcting those causal factors was what drove the design of Vision Navigation®.

The problems we identified:

  1. Lack of Focus: We found that many organizations with strategic plans in place still left their employees feeling a “lack of direction” for the company.  Some of that was attributed to leadership’s failure to communicate, but more often it stemmed from simply taking on too many strategic projects. One client we worked with had 125 goals in its previous plan. There were also many cases where leadership was not consistent in day-to-day direction to validate that what was in the plan was, in fact, a priority.
  2. Not Usable as a Day-to-Day Tool:  Often, new clients would describe their previous planning effort as a good experience to go through, but that the resulting product did not become a tool used on a daily or even regular basis to guide action and measure success.  In short, the strategic plan sat on a shelf.
  3. Lack of Alignment and Ownership: This is really a process matter, but we often found the staff was disconnected from their plan.  Even if they understood the strategic agenda, they often didn’t know or own why it was important or what their role in execution was.  Research has shown that a lesser quality plan with a high level of commitment to action will outperform a higher quality plan with lower commitment.
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  4. Lack of Accountability: The ultimate test of any plan is whether it leads to intended results.  Not clearly assigning responsibility to specific individuals to manage and complete each strategic project undermines getting desired results.
  5. Not Easily Revised: One thing is for sure, the future never rolls out exactly the way you planned it.  Stuff happens.  Staff leave, new problems and opportunities arise, strategies prove unworkable, etc. etc.  If the plan you created yesterday does not represent what you view as important today, then you won’t use it.  That means the plan, or template, must be easy to modify.
  6. Not Fun to Do: For all the reasons above, and the fact that many planning processes drag on for months, we often found apathy at best or hostility at worst when beginning planning with new clients.  Taking a lot of scarce time while not adding value created this often-held viewpoint of strategic planning.

Counteracting the problems

Once we clearly identified the problems, we put several key principles into place when designing Vision Navigation®. I have listed them here for you to consider including in your own strategic planning process:

  1. Limit your strategic agenda. We have found that 5 to 7 key projects is a workable, doable number.  For the bulk of each workday, your team will be consumed by meeting the day-to-day demands of the organization. At best, they can devote 10-20% of their time to designing and implementing a new strategic agenda.  Over-committing gives you losses.  Committing to what you can truly deliver will give everyone wins and get you greater support for future planning efforts.
  2. Summarize your plan. Try to get an understandable outline of your plan on a single sheet of paper that your team can look at regularly and understand easily. This helps keep the plan active and alive.  Our Vision Navigation® Chart displays all projects, their targets, quarterly tasks or outcomes, quarter-ending due dates and the team member responsible for each outcome, all on a single 11×17 sheet.  Each team member gets their own copy, while a wall-sized version goes in the conference room.  The more visible the plan, the more attention and effort it will get.
  3. Create alignment.  Do this by either:  a) involving employees in defining the strategic and/or improvement agenda or b) presenting the agenda to them and asking for feedback.  Effective leaders know it is about creating followers.  Followers often have a different and valid point of view about what changes in the organization are important.  Morale and productivity are impacted by whether employees view leadership as focusing the organization on the right strategic agenda.  If you want high performance, be sure everyone is aligned on what is important.
  4. Speed up the planning process. We all know that the pace of change is increasing; in business as much as in any area of our lives.  We used to plan in five year increments.  Now, a plan can become outdated within months.  So, don’t drag out the planning process.  We like to complete the development of a strategic plan in 30-60 days max, with 60 days really only used if teams or leadership are researching the external strategic landscape.
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  5. Fix accountability. It amazes us that so few plans fix accountability for results or have the accountability shared. To fix accountability, first state each project task or outcome as completed rather than in action, e.g. “report published” vs. “publish report”.  This wording makes clear that attention does not go off an outcome until the team member responsible can state “it is done”. Finally, even if multiple members of the team are going to be involved in producing the result, hold one member of the team accountable for making it happen on time.
  6. Prepare to make revisions. After starting on the plan, be ready to revise it several times during the year. Conditions change, strategies prove unworkable, new problems arise.  Your plan must be easily revised to remain workable as a guide to staff effort. A large bound document (consultants used to feel that their worth was measured in pounds or number of pages) is difficult to use and to revise.  That is why the one-page format is so important.
  7. Make it fun and interesting. A fun, intriguing process stems from:  a) honest open dialogue that leads the group to feel confident that they are confronting and working on the right stuff, b) a process and facilitation that are productive, and c) going to work right away on what you decide is important.  You don’t need team building exercises, Outward Bound or resorts; you just need a sense of productivity to make strategic planning fun.

How to move forward from here

Our next newsletter discusses how to use your plan as a tool to improve performance.  If you have any questions or would like to talk through your current plan and how you can improve it,  e-mail us. We would love to hear from you!