Your Strategic Plan -- Dead or Alive? Nine Ways to Make It Live

Going about it the right way and being serious about the result can buy you a critical organization asset: an articulated framework of ideas that rationalizes everything you do and results in greater focus and synergy across your entire enterprise.
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"There are two schools of thought about strategic planning," said a consulting mentor of ours many years ago. "One holds that it's a waste of time; the other that it's the most important thing you ever do."

"Here's the kicker," he continued, "they're both right."

It sounded enigmatic then; now we know exactly what he meant. There's no point in doing strategic planning just to "punch the ticket." That plan will wind up in a three-ring binder, gathering dust. But going about it the right way and being serious about the result can buy you a critical organization asset: an articulated framework of ideas that rationalizes everything you do and results in greater focus and synergy across your entire enterprise. It all depends on the approach you take and your level of commitment to what you create.

For what it's worth, here's our take on nine things you need to do to give your plan the best chance of becoming a living, breathing document instead of just another strategic planning casualty:

Don't Dictate; Collaborate!
While it's true that you and your two or three closest confidants could come up with a plan all by yourselves in a weekend, resist this urge. Even if your take on everything turned out to be 100 percent on target -- and that's unlikely -- you still need the commitment and engagement of your whole executive team to make a plan come to life. So involve them. But you should go even further than just "the usual suspects."

Take It Out of the Closet
One of change management's basic tenets is that involvement in change lowers resistance to change. In some of the most successful planning efforts we've seen, our clients agreed to supplement the Executive Team with a healthy selection of high potentials and thought leaders from "lower down" in the organization. Thus the "Planning Team" comprises not only "official," formal leadership, but a complement of people who have informal leadership authority as well. In many cases, these latter will be your link to the larger organization, and they will give your plan a kind of legitimacy with employees that it might not otherwise have.

Open the Windows
Organizational myopia is a constant risk and makes exceptions for no one. By all means, front-end your strategic planning with objective outside information -- about your company, its products and services, your industry, your competition and the macro environment in which you operate.

Also key: make sure you have a confidential, non-attributive way of getting at where the members of your team stand now on the critical company issues of the day. This data can be consolidated and tabulated to reveal key themes, areas of significant agreement and areas of significant disagreement. And this rare and healthy stew can be served up objectively early in the process so as to ensure that plenty of reality gets into the room. Strategic plans that either euphemize reality or aren't aware of it at all might as well be pronounced dead on arrival.

Create an Even Playing Field
You're much less likely to strike a new vein of gold in your planning sessions if your deliberations are governed by the deferential respect for hierarchy that characterizes the typical board room. This is especially so if you've followed our second recommendation and invited some "young turks" into the room.

You've got to urge the new folks to screw up enough courage to throw an occasional stone at the temple. Correspondingly, you also need to make certain that your fellow executives exercise forbearance regarding their personal status and their own sacred cows. Otherwise, caution will rule the day -- as it almost always does without intervention -- and the outcome won't be a plan that challenges one and all. It will be safe and predictable. And predictability = death, not a living plan.

Get a Referee -- So You Can Be a Player
As the leader, you want to be able to give 100 percent of yourself to thinking and participating -- not managing the sessions. Studies show that a boss at the front of the room typically monopolizes 60 percent of the conversation. That's a prescription for a stifled process. You want an open and energized one, so you need a catalyst and a facilitator to manage the process and free you up to participate in the all-important content.

It helps to select someone from outside your company who won't be susceptible to insider influence, is more likely to be and be seen as objective, and can provide you with an often-invaluable fresh pair of eyes. You'll want someone who has the stature and credibility to lead senior executive groups effectively in a strategic planning context. And, most importantly, you'll need to spend sufficient time partnering and planning with your resource. They can only be successful with your help.

Stay Loose, and Don't Rush It!
The fact that strategic planning initiatives often comprise multiple sessions can work to your advantage. Exploit it. Too often, executives are pressed to decide now! In our work, we recommend taking the posture that "we're going to do a first-pass on this now and review it at the next session." Repeatedly we've observed that an attitude of "we're gonna get another look at it," loosens up a planning team, dispels stress and cautious thinking, and fosters creativity and greater experimentation.

"Go Deep" Early and Often
Another advantage of the interruptions between planning sessions is the opportunity to expose people beyond the Planning Group to the plan before it becomes final. We highly recommend and almost always use this technique. Its advantages over "closet planning" are indisputable. Do you want to spring a complete plan on your organization, sight-unseen, and face the up-hill challenge of mobilizing people around something in which they've had no part? Or would you rather have broader involvement that begins to generate interest and commitment during the planning phase?

When contributors see evidence of their contributions in the final plan, their pride and commitment are almost palpable, and you have created some insurance that your plan will be a living, motivating force, not just another lifeless administrative document.

Give It Teeth
In working with a recent client, we asked, as we always do, if we could review the "current" plan before launching upon a new planning process. Their existing plan contained an inspiring vision, a time-tested corporate mission, lofty goals, and even some rather well-formed strategies for achieving these goals. But as is surprisingly often the case, it had no "arms and legs." Nowhere did it call out measurable, concrete, actionable, initiative-level tactics or objectives that linked all the lofty aspiration to measurable, accountable implementation.

However solid and inspiring the rest of your plan may be, failing to cover this base can doom it to premature death. You must be sure to support all strategies with concrete tactics or objectives that specify clearly and measurably what will be done. In addition, for each of these, you must designate specific owners as well as completion dates by which these owners will be held accountable to deliver. As one of our clients is fond of saying, "Promises are one thing; delivery is something else!"

Seal the Deal: Follow Up
As the old management saw would have it, "You can expect what you inspect." Part and parcel of your strategic planning process should be a protocol for quarterly and yearly monitoring of progress against the plan after it is created.

Owners of all initiatives should know from the outset that they and their teams will be accountable to report progress at quarterly forums. And, since the operating environment of your enterprise will change from year to year -- sometimes slightly, sometimes significantly - it's important to ensure a fresh look at the strategic plan annually: "Given what's happened in the last 12 months, does it still fit our company, our operating environment?" "Is tweaking or significant change called for?"

Summing Up
Let's face it: however arduous or exhilarating your planning process, it's not until the plan is done that the real work begins -- or doesn't. If it's clear to your organization from your actions that you intend to operate according to what you've laid out and to rigorously monitor progress against it, you've gone a long way toward ensuring that your planning process hasn't been just another academic corporate exercise. What's more, you've created for yourself a strong, comprehensive and compelling platform from which to communicate and to lead.

Just as important, you will have also created for your organization a vibrant, living framework of ideas that links what individuals at all levels do day-to-day with the overarching goals and aspirations of your company. And frameworks that live -- like companies -- don't have time to gather dust.

Ray Gagnon is Principal and Founder of Gagnon Associates, a management and organizational consulting firm located in Metro-West Boston, Massachusetts, USA.

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