Focus, Simplify and Accelerate with Strategic Planning that Works
Many companies invest large sums of money with consultants and task forces to develop new strategic plans. Sometimes I wish they would just donate those dollars to a worthy charity. It’s not that the strategic plans they develop are bad. It’s just that many companies don’t invest the same attention, energy, and effort into the heavy lifting of communicating and executing their plans, so the outcome doesn’t live up to the hype.
Organizations inherently complicate things; servant leaders help their organizations focus on strategic priorities, simplify operations, and accelerate progress.
The Leader’s Challenge
It’s well documented that the pace of change is accelerating. Long gone are the days when a three-year or five-year strategic plan addressed reality even just a few months after its launch. It is harder than ever to align an entire organization against the fewer, bigger, and more consumer-meaningful ideas that might lead a company to prosperity.
In my work, I regularly hear leaders complain about their workforce and their inability to execute. I empathize because I've been a CEO, and I've been tempted by the same trap.
But what if something else is missing? Sometimes it's a case of leadership not doing everything required to make a carefully crafted strategy more executable across the entire organization. The ultimate measure of a strategic plan is its effectiveness in helping everyone in an organization make tough choices that lead to profitable growth. The goal is to get teammates rowing together in the same direction like an efficient rowing crew. Many strategic plans fail because they leave the door open to just about anything anybody wants to do.
In an attempt to focus the whole organization on goals and priorities, a wise leader will cascade their list of priorities throughout the business. But if each layer of management adds its own set of priorities, employees are left to pick from a long list of “priorities” to decide what deserves attention.
Given this smorgasbord approach to leadership, people on the front lines of the business set their own priorities independently, and the best practices of focus, alignment, engagement, and collaboration cannot be fully achieved. This type of organization resembles a rowing crew with athletes rowing at a different cadence and out of sync.
Leaders subsequently wonder why the organization is so darned slow, why momentum is rarely achieved, and why performance against the original goals is less than optimal.
Research reveals that the effort to focus is a tough job. Consider that a study of thousands of companies big and small by Franklin Covey found that only 15% of employees surveyed could name at least one of the top three goals their leaders had identified. Further, among those who could name a goal, only 51% said they were committed to achieving it. A whopping 81% of everyone surveyed said they were not held accountable to progress against the company’s goals, and 87% said they had no idea what to do to help the company achieve the goals.
On top of this lack of goal clarity and accountability, many organizations suffer from a lack of coaching and guidance from supervisors and leaders. Another Franklin Covey study revealed that only 34% of employees meet at least monthly with their managers to discuss progress against goals. Best practice is once per week. Clearly most organizations are not effectively connecting their people to their goals in a way that is personally relevant, let alone motivating.
Strategies designed to drive profitable growth require changes in human behavior. But this data suggests that strategies that might have looked promising in the boardroom are not making their way to the front lines with the clarity required to drive workforce commitment. It is wishful thinking to expect workers to clairvoyantly lift themselves up from the grind of their day-to-day work and change their behavior without a significant amount of communication, context, and a motivating answer to the critical question, “How does my work help us win?” Unfortunately, that is what is happening in many companies.
What Matters Most
"Strategic planning is a colossal waste of time."That's what the Founder, Chairman, and CEO of a very successful family owned business once said to me when I first met him to discuss the future of his company. He also said, "We have a strategic plan, and it's right here!”as he pointed to his head. But he was closing in on retirement, and about to hand over the reigns of the family business to his children. And his children were fraught with uncertainty about their path forward, and the roles each of them would play. They wanted my help, but their father clearly felt that a strategic plan was unnecessary for their successful business.
I knew that he had been an accomplished football player and that he was a big fan of the local professional football team, so I asked him what he would think if the head coach tried to coach the team without a playbook. This, along with some other examples, got his attention. We eventually cultivated a productive and fruitful relationship in which he became a big fan of strategic planning because of the clarity, teamwork, and results we achieved together.
His original opinion is not unique. Many leaders are suspect of and even avoid strategic planning, for a variety of reasons including:
It can drain resources and shift focus away from critical priorities.
It is hard to do well.
It can be obsolete before even finished given the increasing pace of change.
It seems unnecessary for many successful leaders who are inherently strategic.
In fact, one of the most successful business leaders, Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines, once said, "We have a strategic plan, it's called DOING THINGS."
I'm a big fan of action too, and I dislike academic and theoretical exercises too removed from the realities of the front lines of business, as well as useless financial scenario planning exercises. I will also be the first to admit that strategic plans are not cast in stone as they once were due to the rapid pace of innovation and change. However, every business needs a plan or road map for prosperity. Otherwise, the business is rudderless.
What matters most in this age of accelerating change is a clear sense of purpose and strategic direction, grounded in shared core values that create a vibrant culture. The founders of Google talk about having a strategic foundation that is rock solid, with a plan that is fluid. I like that. I believe strategic planning is an ongoing journey that should be integrated into the business model and processes dynamically, not a one-time event. When done well, strategic planning can be a:
Catalyst for organizations trying to reach the next level.
Mechanism for driving focus and alignment behind a common corporate vision to fuel growth and improve operating results.
Roadmap to proactively address opportunities or challenges in an evolving marketplace.
Blueprint for firms looking to acquire or be acquired.
Living, breathing ongoing process recognizing the quickening cadence between strategy and execution.
So how do leaders get their workforce strategically aligned on the truly important stuff, and fired up about raising the bar? If you want a performance-based culture of innovation where people are truly committed to the company’s success, leaders must help each and every person feel like they are personally important and connected to something that truly matters. We will explore how leaders fuel this fire in the belly of their workforce in more detail in other posts. In this post, I want to focus on how the roots of engagement can be cultivated in the strategic planning process.
Obviously, thorough analytics and insightful strategic thinking are important when developing a plan. But even in companies that invest significant resources developing a smart plan, they often under-invest in the work required to elevate workforce engagement to the level needed to achieve their company’s full potential.
I've seen very good strategic plans result in mediocre or even poor results because the plan was not executed by an aligned and committed workforce. Conversely, I've seen mediocre plans deliver outstanding results because the people executing the plan were aligned and committed to success.
When the strategic planning process is performed well, it is rarely done in an ivory tower. Key difference-makers throughout the organization are engaged from the beginning. I like to use a core leadership team to do the bulk of the planning, but have each member form their own sub-team of difference-makers to help us build the plan iteratively and with broader input. This takes time and should not be rushed. It needs to percolate. The sub-teams are also encouraged to reach deeper into the organization for feedback to ensure we are not missing something critical. Engagement is built into the planning process from the beginning because it is the planning process itself that is most vital, not the plan.
This facilitates workforce commitment to the plan once it is launched because the core leadership team has built broad scale ownership of the plan beyond their team. It also produces a more robust plan with fewer blind spots popping up later in execution.
I've used variations of this process over the last 30+ years to:
Turn around struggling businesses.
Reinvigorate the growth of cash cows others thought to be stagnant.
Capitalize on the full potential of growth engines.
Launch new-to-the-world ideas into successful, thriving businesses.
Integrate acquisitions, creating a new, more powerful and synergistic enterprise.
A 10-step process for building a winning strategy AND executing it with excellence:
Focus by building a strategic foundation
Lead deep dive analytics to fully understand the organization’s core strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) using penetrating questions that help leaders and their teams face their current reality.
Align the organization on an authentic purpose and shared core values, which are developed collaboratively, not in a closet.
Build and deploy a compelling vision and strategic direction that leverages core strengths, focuses on the biggest opportunities, acknowledges weaknesses, and thwarts threats. The envisioned future process should attempt to get the leadership team outside their day-to-day boxes to anticipate oncoming industry trends and changes.
Simplify by establishing the most important goals and aligning resources
Establish the minimum number of objectives, goals, strategies, and measures required to realize the vision, using the strategic foundation as your road map. (See The 4 Disciplines of Executionby Chris McChesney, Sean Covey, and Jim Huling for additional advice on focusing on the highest impact goals.). It's important that you don't try to boil the ocean. Cast a broad analytical net, but drive focus on fewer, bigger, more consumer and customer meaningful objectives, goals, strategies, and measures. Remember, a good strategic plan helps people throughout the organization make tough choices.
Assess the organization’s capabilities against the strategic plan, and restructure resources to deliver the plan optimally. Identify and fill talent and resource gaps, and gracefully prune and reallocate lower performing talent and resources.(Many companies overlook this step and simply lean even more heavily on their precious difference-makers while allowing inefficiencies to persist. I believe this is akin to ignoring cancer. See chapters 1 and 2 for more insight.)
Create and use a strategy-driven priority model to help employees understand how decisions are made by leaders, teach employees to use it to make more strategic decisions on their own, and ultimately focus the organization on fewer and bigger strategic initiatives.
Dedicate cross-functional teams to strategic priorities and help them establish key performance indicators (KPIs) and measure progress themselves using a red, yellow, green dashboard.
Accelerate by managing progress, course-correcting, and re-allocating resources
Use a resource scorecard to optimize ongoing allocation of talent and resources, dynamically moving resources from lower-value work toward more important goals while also acknowledging the day-to-day work needed to run the business.
Create momentum using cross-functional teamwork sessions empowered by a milestone management process and sponsored but not micro-managed by leaders.
Deploy the plan with rigor, communicating relentlessly, broadly, and transparently. Catch people doing something well, and hold them up as success models publicly to accelerate the changes in behavior you desire (more about this in other posts).
That tenth step above, deploy the plan with rigor, is crucial, and it is often over-delegated and poorly executed (if not ignored). When a leadership team embarks on a strategic planning process, their work will be socialized at lightning speed. The workforce will be increasingly distracted by rumors.
Servant leaders have the emotional intelligence to realize that people don’t fear change—they fear loss. Leaders should not only control the message, they need to leverage it by proactively and transparently communicating what they are up to, even when they don’t have all the answers.
Candor fuels employee engagement because people want to know that their leaders are doing their jobs. They also want to know that their leaders care enough about them to include them in planning the company’s future. This drives commitment, all hands on deck, and ultimately improved results. Much better than that uninspiring experience we’ve all had when we got a new company vision and strategic plan delivered to us from the ivory tower, only to file it and never reference it again.
In summary, leaders must avoid the strategic planning trap of simply summarizing everything that is going on in the business today, and then putting the plan on the shelf. That is indeed a colossal waste of time. The best strategic plans drive tough choices and accountability deeper into the organization, focusing resources where they create the most economic value. The best plans are:
Balanced, holistic and long-term
Developed collaboratively by the entire leadership team with broad input
Built around a shared and well-communicated vision, and stakeholder principles
Disruptive, provocative, and an incubator of big business building ideas
Based on clear assessments of the organization and the dynamics of the market
Balanced cross-functionally - aligned across business units and lines of business
Driven down to focused goals and performance measures that will become the roadmap for accountable execution – don’t try to boil the ocean
Accomplished in a manner that builds a shared vision, ownership and cohesiveness
Explicit and well communicated – answers the question: what does it mean to me?
Engrained into the fabric of the organization as a dynamic, core business practice that helps keep the company continually focused on its strategic direction
A Success Model
My criteria for a success model when it comes to this principle would be a company that has generated sustained economic value over a long period of time by being strategically focused and special. Companies that have survived good and bad times such as Apple immediately come to mind. But I have no first-hand experience with their leaders, so I'm picking a company a little less glamorous but equally impressive when measured against these criteria.
There are a few very good reasons why Walmart is the largest employer in the world. Since Sam Walton founded the company in 1962, Walmart has been clear about its purpose as an organization. Of course no company is perfect, but, for the most part, the people of the Walmart organization have been unwavering in their principles and core values. Equally important, Walmart has relentlessly focused its entire organization on a few big and simple goals that everyone, including its business partners, understands, because Walmart focuses so much energy on managing the details of execution relentlessly.
Walmart has lost some of its luster recently as consumer purchases migrate on line, and etailers such as Amazon threaten its business model. But Walmart is one of the most amazing success stories in the history of business. The growth in market capitalization and stock trend over the past thirty-four years speaks for itself.
Over the course of my career, Walmart has often been an important customer. On multiple occasions, the company I worked for won the prestigious Walmart Supplier Of The Year award. I’ve travelled to Bentonville, Arkansas more than any other city in the world, and I’ve attended the Walmart annual meeting with business partners and suppliers on several occasions.
Many times I've observed other business leaders mocking the down-home simplicity and down-to-earth nature of Walmart’s culture. Some manufacturers dislike Walmart because Walmart exposes flaws in their business models, and Walmart passes along savings from the inefficiencies that are uncovered to consumers or to its own bottom line.
But the free market works. Walmart has made most of its business partners improve as a result of working with Walmart. The focus on wowing consumers with lower prices is almost cult-like—it’s a strong mantra at the annual meeting, within the walls at headquarters, and in Walmart stores. Meetings at the Walmart offices have always been legendarily challenging. But over time, people have come to realize that this is a company that is aligned throughout its massive organization on providing the most affordable products to shoppers to make their lives better, and Walmart will do whatever it takes to make it happen. Whether you like it or not, you have to admire the focus, determination, and simplicity with which Walmart has executed its strategy.
Strategic companies such as Walmart make their strategies more executable because they say no a lot, and when they say yes, it’s a big yes. They fail fast on bad ideas, and they focus precious resources on fewer, bigger, more consumer meaningful ideas that generate the largest return on investment. Perhaps most importantly, they do the heavy lifting required to achieve exceptional execution throughout their entire organizations and with their business partners. They also win a lot more than they lose.