Strategic planning exists in the hands of the executive leadership team and CEO. The process of designing an organization’s strategy takes painstaking months and is seemingly the cornerstone and guiding light to all an organization should do. It is the dream of young MBAs to be a part of (or own) strategic planning, and Strategy Consultants charge extraordinarily high rates to tell organizations what their strategies should be. By all accounts, it is one of the single most important things an organization undertakes.
And yet…in my recent experience, two quotes seem to more accurately reflect the reality of modern strategic planning: “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy” (from German military strategist Helmuth von Moltke) and, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth” (eloquently stated by Mike Tyson). Does this imply that the strategic planning process is unnecessary? Or even worse, foolish?
In a word, no.
Strategic planning is a discipline that forces organizations to evaluate what is important — how they should use their scarce resources in a unique configuration to make an impact. The speed of business has increased to a breakneck pace, and everyone’s business model is under attack. We have to react more quickly and more deliberately than ever before. The tension between planning and adapting to changes has never been more intense.
The root of the problem is that the communication and execution of our strategic plans are fundamentally flawed. We spend hours, days, and months building the perfect PowerPoint that says exactly what the organization should do. This PowerPoint is proudly presented, commented on, and finalized. In the best case, the rest of the organization builds up plans for how to execute the strategy, and perhaps even put in place a dashboard to measure key metrics that will indicate our success. Our plan, the guiding light, then languishes in PowerPoint, hidden in our emails or maybe some obscure file on our servers. This PowerPoint went out of date almost the moment it was emailed out. Everyone is trying to line up to a plan that we’ve already agreed is changing due to external circumstances.
But we stick with it because it’s the guide that we are using, albeit imperfectly, until the next mammoth strategic planning exercise is undertaken. We waste time on initiatives that are no longer relevant given changed circumstances. We’re still keeping track of progress via our dashboard, but now we’re measuring the wrong things – we focus on short-term metrics, sometimes to the detriment of our strategic imperatives. How do we escape this conundrum? How can we shift our focus from succeeding at planning to planning to succeed?
The answer boils down to two words: Adapt and Align. The leader’s responsibility lies squarely in these two areas:
1. Changing the direction (or plan) of the organization based on changes to our environment
2. Aligning and providing context for the efforts of individuals in the organization
We need to use a system that allows adjustments to the strategy, enables re-alignment across the organization, and keeps the metrics connected to strategic plans – a true strategic management system that helps us to communicate what is changing and why. At CrossLead, we use a SaaS platform that makes the strategic plan dynamic, and it works remarkably well. Since we started using it, we’ve refocused our efforts on a few core initiatives, and the organization is succeeding against achieving those larger objectives. If and when (and it’s usually a when) the context changes, senior leaders are able to shift the strategy to match the new environment, and the rest of the company is kept in sync. Activities adjust to meet the altered strategy, and employees don’t panic about changes. Change is expected, and they know how to deal with it because handling change has become a routine.
In the words of Jack Welch: “An organization’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage.” Relying on a static plan is no way to make sure your organization is learning and developing the way it needs to.
To compete and win, your plan should live, breathe, speak, and listen to your organization. So no…your company’s plan should not be sitting in a PowerPoint.
About Matt Sitter
Matt is Chief Services Officer for CrossLead. He advises executives and their organizations on operations, communications, organizational and talent development, and strategic alignment. Matt’s experience spans multiple industries and functional roles. His passions are to make organizations, teams, and leaders the best they can be.