Take a moment to think back on a big win you were a part of during your career. What still resonates? A brilliant strategy? A perfectly articulated goal? An impressive presentation deck? A flawless spreadsheet? Chances are, none of those things come to mind.
What you most likely recall and cherish is a feeling. That feeling, and the emotion that ignited it, made you part of a team with a common purpose. This energy enables us to conquer anything in our way. It stays with us long after specific details or circumstances are forgotten.
Unfortunately, it's nonexistent in the strategic planning process.
You Can't Raise a Family in a Beautiful Plan
In a recent email, OneAccord co-founder Jeff Rogers highlighted a self-inflicted, potentially fatal business limitation: Companies can't implement their plans. As Jeff observed, "Only a third of strategic plans, at best, actually happen. This is because most strategic planning is treated like an event."
Even more worrisome, according to a Bridges Business Consultancy's strategy implementation survey, only 2 percent of leaders indicated they could fully achieve their strategic objectives. While 80 percent of leaders believe their organizations are good at formulating strategy, 98 percent think they'll fall short of their strategic objectives. What good is an architect who creates spectacular plans for houses that will never be built?
Obstacles to high-impact strategic plans include:
- Building strategic plans that are to-do lists
The best ones are to-don't lists
- Creating a wish-list plan
Think "a Porsche" on a 16-year-old's birthday wish list
- Developing strategies focused inwardly instead of on customer needs
Any plan aiming to be the "undisputed leader in the marketplace" is a loser
- Establishing a strategic planning department
Like committees, such departments are where good ideas die
- Treating strategic planning as an event by conflating setting strategy with doing strategy
As Aesop wisely observed, "After all is said and done, more is said than done"
While addressing these deficiencies will deliver a better strategic plan, it won't get better results. So, what prevents us from getting strategy done?
They Hear You But Don't Feel You
Referring to the study noted earlier, leaders believe that 95 percent of employees lack a basic understanding of company strategy. How can even the most motivated team members do the job when they don't understand what the job is?
The logical answer is to communicate more, yet 90 percent of middle managers report that leaders adequately communicate strategies. Teams hear the strategy. They want to care, but don't.
Successful strategy implementation goes beyond communication or better communication; it requires speaking another language.
We Speak Mercenary, Not Missionary
Money is the native tongue of business leaders. Owners and executives are fluent when it comes to measurable elements such as revenue growth, profit margin, gross margin, sales growth, customer acquisition costs and so on. It's second nature to quantify goals and report them, but the ability to influence those outcomes is hit-and-miss.
Here's the problem: We tell our teams what to aim for without telling them what we stand for. If Martin Luther King, Jr. pursued change like a business leader, he would've spent a day at an offsite, picked some KPIs, set a few concrete targets and summarized it all in an email with a strategic plan attached — "cc: Senior Team."
But he didn't distribute a strategic plan. He shared a dream — not his dream, a dream. It was an invitation to engage, not a mandate to participate. He shared the vision relentlessly and got results. We can't expect consistent results until we communicate our plan and our purpose.
A Million Dollar Nap
My most valuable business lesson in college occurred during a sociology lecture. I slept through it. Some Monday, Wednesday or Friday during Sociology 110, the professor discussed the essential role of emotions in knitting individuals (employees) into societies (teams). Paying attention to that insight would've saved me significant time, treasure and social friction. I estimate the cost of that missed lesson was a seven-figure drag on performance.
Human history started with progress bound by emotional threads among people. That dynamic hasn't changed and never will. Those ties play a pivotal role in anything requiring two or more people to accomplish it. Emotional ties link our individual lives and ambitions to everything we pursue with others — they're also missing from even the most thorough strategic plans.
Mediocre results will continue until the strategic plan speaks not only to clearly defined outcomes and accountability, but to the greater good it serves. Motivating with metrics is like trying to get water to flow uphill.
A Part is Not a Machine
A basic mechanical gear train takes two gears: a driver and a follower. Without the driver, the follower is useless. The same is true of a strategic plan. Yet, more often than not, we build a standalone gear (call it "What We Do") and wonder why it doesn't run.
The problem is that we think good ideas drive results. So, we take a solid concept, wrap it in objectives and action plans, and expect it to just happen. But thoughtfulness and logic won't get the job done; they're simply elements of a viable strategy.
We have to connect the idea to a driver, which will energize people and unite them over the long haul. Stating what we stand for — "Who We Are" — is the missing gear that drives results.
The Roadmap to Get Strategy Done
Leaders don't want a strategic plan; they want results. Since a clear purpose links ideas to outcomes, why don't they use purpose to get what they want? Typically, the answer is some combination of the following:
- It requires opening up with colleagues, which can be uncomfortable
- Lack of experience or a roadmap to reveal and communicate a unifying purpose
- Intuitive thinking is challenging for analytical minds
The first one is central to what prevents teams and companies from realizing their potential. Being open requires courage and humility. No one can do it for you. It's a simple (but not easy) matter of working through the challenge. That said, we can eliminate the other two obstacles using the roadmap and a few exercises below.
"If you don't know where you're going, you might wind up someplace else." —Yogi Berra
Bring This; Leave That
This is what's needed: undivided attention, unflinching introspection, positivity, a focus on others (key stakeholders) and honoring your commitments.
And it's just as important to leave communication crutches behind. So, while you're working to define your purpose, no Excel, no PowerPoint, no email, no armor and no B.S.
What Do We Stand For?
- Identify your key attributes by providing a few examples of how your company is unique, compelling and necessary.
- Then do the same for your values, starting with people you respect. What character traits do you admire most about them and why are they important to you?
Consider words, books, art, movies and music. Write down meaningful words and force-rank them. Then compile some images that illustrate those values.
Reflect on the best team you were ever a part of. What made it great? What were the team's most significant accomplishments? Who and what kept the group together?
Now create the first draft of a purpose statement. It should align what you think, say and do. In two or three sentences, the statement needs to capture what you believe as a company, how you communicate it inside and outside the company, and what you do to advance your belief.
What Do We Aim For?
Formalize your strategic plan:
- Set the company's 10-year vision
- Establish goals to create and capture market value
- Select key strategies to allocate resources needed to achieve goals
- Identify quantifiable objectives to measure progress toward goals
- Develop action plans toward objectives. Every action should include who is responsible for doing what by when. Remember, no committees!
Implement the plan:
- Build a performance dashboard with three realities in mind:
- What isn't measured isn't managed
- What's out of sight is out of mind
- Insights available to just a few are never as valuable as visibility to the eyes of many
- Communicate your purpose and strategic vision simply, relentlessly and everywhere
After All Was Said, We Got Strategy Done
It takes people working together to realize any worthwhile vision. They want to pursue goals that create a positive impact and engage in meaningful work. So, they should understand more than just what to shoot for; they deserve to know what they stand for.
In business, we develop strategic plans to set the course and dashboards to keep us on track. Both are essential. It's like traveling. We use a map to get us from point A to point B and an itinerary to keep us on schedule. Yet, when the trip is over, no one is nostalgic for the map or schedule. We remember the people, experiences and feelings we shared.
Is our work any different?
What's missing from your strategy?
About the Author
The path to growth is a tightrope. Eric Salo is a business strategist and leadership coach who equips teams with the balance pole they need to walk it. He coaches organizations to reach the other side by: (1) putting people first, (2) linking purpose to a plan and (3) and implementing change decisively.
Companies call on Eric to jumpstart financial performance and stalled change implementations. Drawing on his experience as the former chief strategy officer of an S&P500 company, he uses his ability to read an income statement and the room to create a day-one impact.
Eric is not an author or keynote speaker; he rolls up his sleeves and works with teams to get stuff done. Learn more at ericsalo.com
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