Throw Your Strategy Plans Away! Three Lessons From the Failure Playbook
80 per cent of strategy plans do not get implemented. This failure rate applies to both Fortune 500 companies and small non-profit organizations. There are many reasons why organizations fail in implementing, rather than formulating, the greatest and the most ambitious strategic visions of all time. I have three lessons to share from my experience working with clients and executives to showcase that failure to implement comes not from bad intentions but a lack of focus on things that matter.
1. Strategic thinking trumps over-planning and other administrative processes
The strategies, and the plans that go with them, are already obsolete by the time you formulate them. Yes, the need to break it down to bite-size pieces and provide timelines and success metrics is obvious. However, the propensity to over-plan is dangerous. It creates tunnel vision where anything outside the plans can be ignored to the detriment of the implementation of the plan and the organization as a whole. Opportunities present themselves all the time that leaders and managers should exploit without having to look down on their plans to see if it works or not. That judgment only comes from a strategic perspective.
What is the best remedy against over-planning?
You must review and revise the plan as the need arises, knowing that you will revisit the strategy regularly. These plans are never sacrosanct and no one will be shooting at you as a manager for having revised them as you go — because change is constant. It is important to instill a strategic culture in the whole organization, where it doesn’t start and end at the formulation stage but continues like clockwork.
2. A strategic plan should be a breathing, living and working document
I was talking to an association staff member about a specific program that I knew they were still implementing. The staff told me right off the bat, “This program is no longer supported because 1) we didn’t get enough funding to make it work and 2) our new strategy determines that we become more discerning about the kinds of programs we put out for our members, and this program didn’t make it.” Clever answer.
Association staff, managers and leaders can articulate and negotiate the success of their organizations through the clarity and conviction they have about their future. If you are tied to your documents and have not yet convinced the significant stakeholders of your organization about the most compelling case for the future, the journey towards achieving it and the rewards they can benefit from it, you are losing sight of the substantive and lasting value of this process.
What is the best remedy to get the strategy internalized?
There is a saying, “If it’s not in the heart, and not in the head, where will it be?” Don’t let it be the best-kept secret. Create a culture within your team and the whole organization that allows you to discuss issues on a monthly/quarterly basis. Design activities and programs around topics that celebrate the new reality you are trying to create and encourage lively conversation with no risk for contrarian and differentiated opinions and perspectives. Keep it real and anchored in an everyday work situation.
3. The implementation is the strategy
The distinction between a stellar strategy gathering dust in nice three-ring binders and a modest strategy that is well-implemented lies in the execution. If you depart from it, either by design or unintentionally, that means you have no strategy or have taken a different approach altogether.
Regardless, the real strategy is the implementation. It is easy to say but hard to do. Challenges that exist before the strategic planning exercise can become worse (Manzanal-Frank 2019) and can persist if the management refuses to accept that it can derail, damage and distract the organization from their targets. You have to shut some doors that are no longer viable, profitable or valuable.
What is the best remedy for the failure to implement because of existing challenges?
The strategy should clear the plate and not add up to your existing problems. Use the analogy of “shut-doors” so that you can identify which areas should be abandoned and forgotten, and on which areas to capitalize in light of the new dispensation. If there are pre-existing problems and issues, use the transition as an opportunity to resolve them accordingly. Assign the best resources to areas of the implementation that will generate an ROI of 60 to 80 per cent. The rest is the icing on the cake.