Why strategic plans don't work anymore (and what does)

Why strategic plans don't work anymore (and what does)
Amos Beer
Amos BeerAmos Beer Ltd. T/A Stratagility

Posted: Thu 2nd May 2024

When, aeons ago, I graduated from university, a friend offered me to join him on a yacht to sail around the Mediterranean.

We were still free of any obligations, had enough money and planned to do the odd job if we ran out at any time. It was the best time of my life. Eventually, we ran out of money (the odd-job plan didn’t work as we had hoped) and we went back home to real life.

There is a lesson here. Running an organisation without a strategic plan is a bit like my yacht adventure – it may be great fun, but you will not get anywhere specific and you might run out of money at some point.

A strategic plan is invaluable for an organisation’s success, whether it is a commercial entity or a charity. It sets the course for the organisation to reach its goals.

Unfortunately, only one in three plans work. Having taken part in quite a few of those in my days in the corporate world, I did some research to find out why.

This is what I have found:

1. Methodology

Strategic plans are usually created by outside consultants. This has two drawbacks:

  • They are prohibitively expensive so many organisations simply don’t do them and those that do can’t repeat them frequently enough, so they become irrelevant at some point

  • The organisation’s management team is involved only as a source of information, not in actually setting up the plan so they are less than committed to it

2. Top-down

'Strategos' in Greek is a general of the army and it implies that the top brass knows best and the rest of the organisation just needs to comply. These days employees at all levels want to be involved. Otherwise, they are simply not engaged.

3. Long term

The prevailing approach (enhanced by the high costs) is that you plan a strategy for 10 to 15 years. In a dynamic world, you will be lucky if your strategy is still the same in 15 months!

4. Implementation

Strategic plans usually don’t include an implementation schedule, accountabilities, deadlines or follow-up. Without these, as any project manager will know, success is unlikely.

For a strategic plan to work it needs to be:

  • Internal: Do it yourself (with the help of a facilitator, if needed) with your team to ensure maximum commitment and harvest the best insight and knowledge they possess

  • Engaging: By leading your team in setting up the plan, you will guarantee their engagement throughout its implementation

  • Short-term: There is little point in creating a five or 10-year plan any more so, while having your eyes on the ultimate goal (your vision), identify the actions you can take in the next year and create a detailed plan

  • Agile: A strategic plan is not the gospel. Review and revise it if and when needed

Watch this webinar to master your business plan:

Here are the stages of a strategic planning process that I have found to be most effective:

1. Why

You’d be surprised how many organisations never sit down to formalise their 'dream goal' – how will the organisation look one day, when it will be all you ever wanted it to be? Running an organisation without a defined 'dream goal' is a bit like my post-grad yacht adventure – it may be fun but will not get you anywhere.

2. Who

Often referred to as organisational culture – the values that are critical to you and your team. It may sound a bit new-age to some but values are important for two reasons:

  • An organisation without a clear set of values will find it hard to keep its team engaged and motivated. They will do what they must but without fire in their bellies, the results will be accordingly

  • An organisation with a clear set of values will make better decisions faster. For an inspirational story to demonstrate this read Johnson & Johnson’s Tylenol poisoning story

3. Where

When we set out on our yacht trip, private commercial GPS was taking its first steps in the yachting world. It didn’t even exist in cars at the time. Nowadays when you start the Satnav in your car, the first thing it will do, after asking you where you want to go (the WHY in our context), is to pinpoint where you are now.

There are a few ways to do this but I recommend:

  • SWOT analysis: A well-known methodology to identify the organisation's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. In other words, its current internal state (strengths and weaknesses) and environment (opportunities and threats).

  • Stakeholders' needs analysis: A less known but at least equally effective tool. The aim is to identify the most important needs of the most important stakeholders in the organisation that are the least met.

4. What

Once you know where you are, where you want to eventually get to and what’s important to you on the way, it is time to find out the things you can and need to do to get one step closer to your dream goal.

I call these things 'boosters'. Note that I used the term “one step closer” and for good reason. As I wrote before, you can’t normally plan to get all the way to your dream goal. It is usually too far into the future and too many things will change while you are on your way, so focus on boosters that are achievable in the next 12 months.

Make sure to select those that are:

  • Impactful – will make a real change

  • Essential – without them very little will happen

  • Fast-burners – their impact will be felt within a short time

5. How

Possibly the most critical element of a strategic plan and one that most are missing. In this stage, you will create a detailed execution schedule for each of the boosters for the next 12 months, split into quarters. There is no point in making a detailed plan for a longer period.

Each booster must have:

  • An accountable leader who will make sure it happens

  • Quarterly targets

  • Weekly tasks

  • KPIs

6. Implementation

All this hard work you will have done by now will be worthless if not implemented. To do this, each leader needs to keep weekly meetings to review last week’s tasks and plan the next week’s.

Once a quarter (at least) the whole team needs to get together to review the entire plan and make course corrections, if needed.

The main hindrance to strategic plans’ success is that in every organisation the urgent trumps the important. It takes a lot of discipline and practice to make sure that strategic tasks and targets are kept in a high enough place on your to-do lists.

This contemporary alternative to outsourced strategic planning has already proved itself in countless organisations. There is no reason why it shouldn’t work for you.

Relevant resources

Amos Beer
Amos BeerAmos Beer Ltd. T/A Stratagility

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