Strategic planning is supposed to be the process by which organizations look into the future and craft a vision; a plan for how they will pro-actively respond to their customers, the marketplace, the economy, their competitors, and the environment in order to be successful.
The problem with most plans is they sit on shelves in dusty binders full of charts, graphs, historical performance information, and hours and hours of research that, after the planning sessions, never see the light of day let alone get used to making business decisions. What happened to execution?
After several decades of this behavior being the norm, it is natural to ask, “Why did we do all of that if we aren’t going to use it?” Some pundits have suggested, based on these frustrations and the speed of the marketplace, that strategic planning is outdated and should be dispensed with entirely. The better question might be, “Is it planning that needs to be scrapped, or is it accountability and a bias toward action that need to be emphasized?”
For those who believe in the latter, that is a good sign. It means people are willing to take the future into their own hands and shape the parts of it that they can while being nimble enough to respond to the parts that are out of their control. If we accept those conditions, then the next question is, how do you get the organization to move from planning to execution?
It’s The Culture…
The most important part of strategic execution is establishing a culture and structure that allows the organization to achieve its long-term goals. Culture dictates the attitudes, approaches, and behaviors that people manifest within the organization. If these are in conflict with taking action and ownership, all the great planning in the world won’t change your ability to execute. So the first thing you need to do is identify what kind of culture you have. Ask your employees. Make sure you understand how to translate what their responses are. In other words, if people say, “Oh, we have a food culture because people always bring in something to eat”, understand that they have identified a symptom of the culture, not the culture itself. “A food culture” probably means that your organization values people, support teams, and relationships above competition and rivalry because people want to spend time and money preparing or purchasing something they can share with their colleagues.
Once you identify the culture, ask yourself if it is consistent with what you want to achieve. If you are looking for market innovation, you probably don’t want a culture that is hierarchical and permission-based. And if you don’t have the culture your vision calls for, are you ready to pro-actively change your culture or do you modify your plan to fit what your current culture is capable of delivering? There’s no right answer. Just make your decision consciously. If you choose to change your culture, be ready with the right mindset. If you’re not, you won’t be able to adapt.
Making Goals Clear and Measurable
Once you have formed your new culture or have understood the culture within which you operate, you must translate your long-term vision into smaller, measurable outcomes with clear initiatives and real measurable goals. If there is no measurement or baseline to work from, a baseline needs to be established in order to measure progress. For example, if you are measuring customer satisfaction and you have no data, starting out with a customer satisfaction survey is, by default, the beginning of the initiative. Concurrent with that concept is a goal must be measurable. When goals aren’t able to be measured, they can frustrate the team and all are left wondering whether or not they have been successful. Specifically, these vague goals read like: ‘ensure employee happiness’; ‘guarantee that everyone has a good work/life balance’. More appropriate might be, ‘Increase employee satisfaction with our benefits package by 15%’. This, however, begs the question, where is employee satisfaction with our package today? You have to do this kind of research to find out what your jumping-off point is. Once you do that you are able to measure a change over time.
Keep it Stretch – Keep it Realistic
Goals should stretch the organization because unless you ask people to try for more, you won’t improve on past performance. If you challenge people, realistically, and they accomplish it, the outcome is a genuine sense of pride that pulls the team together under the banner of success.
However, don’t forget to make the goal realistic. If goals are too far afield, pride turns into discouragement and cynicism and people have a hard time rallying around a goal no one believes can be accomplished. Establishing goals that are motivating and challenging but reachable requires leadership that is both optimistic and driven.
Accountability is critical. If there is no accountability, plans will falter. Assign initiatives and their goals to one single owner. Someone whose job it is to ensure the initiative(s) is(are) making progress and achieving real outcomes. This doesn’t mean that one person does all the work. It does mean that one person ensures the work is being done and the process is always moving forward. It also means that one person is responsible for monitoring and reporting on progress and for raising the alarm if progress is slowed or stopped.
This owner is also responsible for keeping things flexible. The owner does this by ensuring the initiative is always relevant and appropriate based on not only the desired outcomes but the continuing benefit the outcome will have on the organization. Owners need to be aware of the environment, the ongoing needs of the customer and the marketplace, and the goals of the organization. If they keep those drivers in mind, their initiatives will stay pertinent and valuable.
Making Strategic Execution Happen
Strategic execution is not as challenging as it is made out to be. The most important part is the commitment from leadership to want to make it happen. In order to sustain the momentum the organization built in creating the plan, commit and follow through using your management team to hold people accountable, stay flexible, make your goals clear and measurable and regularly check that you are chasing realistic objectives. Keeping communications clear, transparent, and consistent keeps people and your organization aligned and moving, strategically, forward.