January 23, 2019

12 Ways to Mess Up Your Strategic Plan

Advising Leaders

In his Harvard Business Review article “The Big Lie of Strategic Planning,” Roger Martin highlights one very common mistake organizations make when creating a strategic plan: facing an uncertain future, they make inappropriately detailed forecasts and take artificial comfort in their numbers rather than see strategy as activity that’s fundamentally about making choices by asking yourself the big questions of “where to play” and “how to win.”

What Works and What Doesn’t?

This is indeed a big problem. But there are many other ways to mess up your strategic plan. Prescriptive plans that have the hubris to predict exactly what needs to be done five years from now are obsolete the day they are printed. Plans created from the top down just sit on the shelf because without participation, there is no buy-in and without buy-in there is no implementation. Plans that look only inward are naïve at best because they ignore external changes in demographics, technology, society, and the competitive landscape. Plans that walk the middle of the road and avoid making tough decisions are soon rendered useless because they offer neither direction nor differentiation.

Problems with Perspective, Process, and People

Over the years, we’ve heard from institutions about what didn’t work for them in the past and shaped our process to avoid these pitfalls so that we can co-create successful strategic plans. These issues tend to fall in three categories: perspective, process, and people. The plan’s perspective — the framing of the problem to the solved — may be off in a variety of ways. The process you use to create the plan could be working against you. The people participating in the plan may not be quite right or working the right ways. So, without further ado, here are 12 really good ways to mess up your strategic plan (hint: we suggest you do the opposite of these!):

Perspective problems:

1. Making the timeframe too long (i.e. five years) and too prescriptive to be flexible and responsive to your changing context

2. Focusing mostly internally on your own strengths, weaknesses, vision, and goals without considering external changes and the competitive landscape

3. Focusing entirely on new initiatives without opportunities to build on and sustain current successes

4. Not identifying the things you’re going to stop doing in order to make way for new initiatives, people, and activities

Process problems:

5. Not tying your specific ideas to your budget so that you end up with lots of unfunded mandates and unachievable goals

6. Waiting until the middle or end of the process to reveal to the participants the knowns, constraints, or decisions that have already been made

7. Not having a clear approach for how decisions will be made — what’s by consultation, by consent, or by consensus

8. Making the plan entirely qualitative without looking at quantitative data

9. Not testing your ideas before the plan is complete

People problems:

10. Structuring the plan to perpetuate current silos, such as having each department have its own goal

11. Using the planning process to reinforce practices you actually want to change (i.e., if you aspire to more collaboration, don’t meet by individual department)

12. Assuming that participants will instantaneously be a high-functioning team instead of having specific activities to accelerate the forming, storming, and norming to get to performing

What Should You Do Instead?

To avoid these pitfalls, you need a planning process that is better informed, more agile, and truly participatory. Design the planning process to strike the right balance between broad and deep engagement to get input, feedback, and buy-in while allowing the process to move along swiftly. Facilitate an engaging and information-rich process that looks inside-out and outside-in through surveys, benchmarking, town hall meetings, workshops, leadership retreats, trend forecasting, and competitive research. Rather than creating overly detailed and prescriptive plans, create durable, unique visions that can guide decision-making and complement the long-term vision with playbooks of ideas and actions that they can implement and adapt in more agile ways. Prototype and pilot ideas and initiatives to build momentum and help make the case — and budget them so they are achievable.

Instead of messing up your strategic plan, you can move ahead more quickly, your people will be more excited and aligned, and you can finish the planning process not wondering where to start but having already made progress and used the planning process to begin creating the organizational transformation you aim to achieve.

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