January 16, 2021

Does Your Strategic Plan Need A Reality Check?

Do you have a bold, ambitious plan to guide your organization in the year ahead?

Did your executive team toil for days on getting it “just right”? 

Are you gearing up for your big org-wide presentation? 

Before you do that, run your plan through the following reality check. 

Ask yourselves these three tough questions. Be honest and brave enough to catch your mistakes before they turn into major strategic mishaps. 

3 Questions to Ask Yourselves BEFORE Finalizing Your Strategic Plan 

Did a HiPPO create your strategic plan?

You’re probably familiar with the term, HiPPO...aka the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion. Unfortunately, this phenomenon is very common when it comes to strategic planning. 

Without a structured process to gather and synthesize data from multiple sources to inform your strategy, most organizations default to the opinion of those with the most seniority. 

Do this instead:

  • Entrust cross-functional leaders to own areas of your strategic plan. For example, you might have one leader own revenue, another own customer satisfaction, and a third own employee satisfaction. 
  • Invite these leaders to do a strategy analysis, based on quantitative and qualitative data, to understand the “state of the union” in these areas. The analysis should also include proposed strategic initiatives with high execution feasibility and high value for stakeholders.
  • Encourage leaders to gather feedback on the analysis with all relevant teams. Let them be your internal storytellers and consensus-builders. 

The benefits of this approach are two-fold: 

(1) Your strategy is based on data, not opinion.

(2) You build an organizational-wide understanding of the WHY behind strategy...not just the WHAT.

As a bonus, this move makes a HUGE difference in the engagement of your people. Thirty-five years of goal science research from Locke and Latham (2003) shows that understanding why a goal is selected fosters greater motivation to achieve it than the act of coming up with the goal itself. 

Are you committing your organization to too much?

Most organizations try to “boil the ocean” with their strategic plan. They believe that, in order to be successful, they must do all the things that they see their competitors do AND come up with new ways of disrupting the industry AND sustainably grow their customer base AND reduce churn AND be voted a “great place to work” by their employees. 

What they don’t realize is that by trying to do all the things, they are inadvertently choosing to be incredibly slow at execution. We know from process science that when we add more projects to complete, the time for project completion increases (see Little’s Law to learn more.) 

By trying to do all the things, executive teams also risk putting their teams at risk of burnout...which leads to attrition.  

Do yourselves a favor and follow these tips instead: 

  • Commit only to the “critical few” initiatives that have the highest chance of adding value to your organization. Make sure to properly vet your initiatives through a Cost of Delay analysis in order to understand value generation vis-a-vis opportunities costs. 
  • Account for work that is already underway in your organization and ascertain the bandwidth of your teams for taking on new strategic initiatives.  
  • Build in organizational slack in order to have resources available for unplanned work. Unplanned work, or “firefighting” on urgent and emergent tasks, is a fact of organizational life. Building in slack at the beginning of a planning cycle is probably one of the most overlooked solutions to successful execution. Those organizations that commit their teams to no more than up to 80% bandwidth respond more quickly and more effectively to fires when they emerge.  

Do you have a plan for execution? 

This last reality check question to answer is about your deployment plan. Most organizations consider this question an afterthought, if at all. 

There is often the assumption that once the strategic plan is announced, division units and teams will take it upon themselves to come up with action plans, based on thoughtful analysis of data on previous performance and future capabilities. 

Teams are expected to come up with their own ways of working on the plan, as well as to handle challenges and get better at executing on the plan along the way. 

And, when an executive wants to know the progress of the plan, it is expected that teams are able to readily share the status and necessary details within a relatively short time frame.  

Of course, we know what the reality actually looks like. 

For most organizations, the execution part is where things fall apart. Without consistent and agreed-upon ways for tracking progress, surfacing gaps, solving challenges, and reporting on status, organizations stumble throughout the year. 

Moreover, without a strong sense of psychological safety, which is the shared belief that we can take risks and grow together as an organization, you cannot expect your people to successfully deliver on your strategy. 

Do these things to make sure your plan translates into reality:

  • Develop an action plan template for all teams to document what they will do to execute on strategy. This template is a storytelling device that documents what worked (and what didn’t) in the past and what is the hypothesis for what will work in the future. This action plan also includes key metrics that teams track to ascertain progress. 
  • Encourage all teams at all levels to run monthly strategy retrospectives. Retrospectives are reflection meetings to help teams learn how to get better at what they do. These meetings are powerful because they foster psychological safety. They give teams the opportunity to comfortably talk about mistakes and share insights from those mistakes.
  • Create an org-wide reporting structure based on insights from retrospectives. Create a regular cadence for reporting out plan progress and invite teams to share out progress based on their retrospective insights. In this way, you foster an even greater sense of psychological safety and learning as teams divulge their ongoing challenges and iterative solutions to hit their mark. 

Next Steps for Future-Proofing Your Strategic Plan 

Now that you have a good sense of what you need to do to set up your strategic plan for success, it’s time to take action. 

If you’d like to chat in real time about your strategic planning challenges, feel free to reach out below.

Reach out to start a conversation

We look forward to learning more about you and your organization — and how I can help you achieve your goals!
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