Killing Your Strategic Plan?
Holly G. Green
Those who follow my blog or have heard me speak to business
groups and conventions know that I constantly talk about the dangers
of MSU, or making stuff up. Making stuff up occurs when we listen
to the thought bubbles inside our heads that tell us the world must
be a certain way; when we fill in the voids of information with our
own interpretation or beliefs. We get into trouble when we make
decisions or take action without testing to see whether the
assumptions underlying our thought bubbles are actually true. Or
when we forget to pause every now and then to question the thought
bubbles that we have had for awhile.
Thought bubbles come in all shapes and sizes, and contain all
sorts of half-truths and misinformation. Here are three that
frequently wreak havoc with efforts to implement a strategic plan.
bubble #1: “Once the strategic plan gets written, it will get done
exactly as intended”:
I can’t tell you
how many times I see this thought bubble undermine well-meaning
strategic initiatives. It’s almost funny, considering how most plans
end up in binders or tucked away on the shelf never to be looked at
again. But even those companies that refer to their strategic plans
on a regular basis frequently succumb to this fatal mistake.
The hard truth is that even the best strategic plans do not
unfold exactly as planned. As you progress towards your destination
points, you will encounter surprises. Some will come from
changes in the external environment that you couldn’t possibly
Others will result from internal forces, such as old ways of
doing things, resistance to change, and unspoken beliefs that
underlie stated goals. Expectations that plans will not require
fundamental organizational changes are dangerous because they can
prevent you from properly managing the current state. Never
underestimate the amount of change that might be required to see
your plan through. And be careful of minimizing the difficulty of
implementing that change.
bubble #2: “We just have to execute and everything will turn out
On the surface, this seems to make sense. Upon closer inspection,
thinking that all you have to do is execute can lead to the
assumption that alignment with and commitment to the plan already
exist within your organization. Not so!
Most companies do a lousy job of communicating the strategic
plan to front-line employees. When people don’t know or understand
the goals and objectives, they end up working on what is important
to them rather than what is important to the organization. Without
ongoing communication around the plan, you can throw any hopes for
alignment right out the window. Employees usually believe they are
doing the right things and are working hard to produce what they
believe is expected. The problem is, what they believe is the right
thing may be out of date or out of alignment with what you now need
in the organization.
Similarly, management often assumes that employees are
committed to the future when in reality they remain much more
committed to the past. The past almost always seems more compelling
because people at least think they understand what happened and
why. There is some comfort in knowing, even if they do not like
what they know. Gaining commitment to the plan requires making sure
that the future is more compelling than the past and then constantly
inspiring employees to want to go there.
bubble #3: “Announcing a change means that we have already changed”:
one of the subtler and more insidious thought bubbles. In today’s
world, most strategic initiatives involve a significant amount of
change, but there’s a big difference between announcing
change and actually achieving it. Many organizations announce new
change initiatives with a lot of fanfare. But after all the hoopla
has passed, what actually happens is that people end up investing
their time and energy in attempting to rearrange their old ways of
thinking rather than adopt new ones.
Instead of discarding their old ideas, assumptions and
beliefs, people look for ways to make the old ideas work within the
context of the announced change. In other words, they give lip
service to the change, but spend most of their time trying to make
the new ideas fit into their old ways of working. As a result,
everyone acts as if the change has occurred when, in reality, it
never even got out of the starting gate.
Implementing change requires more than inspired oratory.
People have to consciously change how they think and act. The
organization needs to set new goals that are clearly different than
previous ones. It needs to outline what behaviors and results are
necessary to achieve the new goals and objectives AND which
behaviors are out of bounds. Most of all, management needs to state
very clearly which elements of the status quo should remain and
which ones need to go. Otherwise, people will have very different
interpretations of what to hold onto, and the organization will
remain stuck in the past while everyone incorrectly thinks they have
To avoid suffering the consequences of these thought bubbles,
ask questions like:
How does the
expected pace of getting to our destination points compare to
the actual pace?
initiatives have we started in the past year? How have those
progressed? What initiatives have we stopped? Why?
of our resources is focused on maintaining and enhancing the
status quo versus new initiatives?
How much time
do we spend promoting and moving towards the new destination
problems and opportunities consuming everyone’s time and
preempting our longer-term progress?
Do we have
clear champions who will keep others focused on making progress
for each significant initiative?
consequences for missing deadlines or other obligations?
Never mistake a written plan for reality. Beware of thinking
that you know how everything will turn out just because you have a
beautifully documented plan. And don’t think you have already
changed just because you announced it.
Ask questions that challenge your beliefs and assumptions.
Be prepared to adjust as your plan unfolds, and communicate those
adjustments as necessary. Do these things on a consistent basis and
those misleading thought bubbles will no longer derail your
carefully crafted plans.
Read other articles and learn more about
Holly G. Green.
[Contact the author for permission to republish or reuse this article.]