Why Strategic Plans Fail to Get Executed
It’s a tale we see all too often. We work with the members of a leadership team to create an inspiring and potentially transformative strategic plan, and they leave motivated to tackle the world. A few weeks later when the reality of daily business sets in, our conversations take a different tone. Inspiration quickly turns to overwhelm when the team realizes how much has to get done to achieve the vision, and how little time exists every day to do so. The team is left scratching their heads wondering, “Where do we even start?”
As Ram Charan said: “70 percent of strategic failures are due to the poor execution of leaders. It’s rarely for lack of smarts or vision.” This is why the most critical juncture in the strategic planning process is transforming the words on a page into day-to-day action. Armed with a greater understanding of the roadblocks that can stand in the way, and some practical tools to help you overcome them, your team can become empowered to work even more effectively to achieve each of the goals outlined on your strategic plan.
Roadblock 1: Not Being Structured for Success
In his book, “Good to Great,” Jim Collins uses the analogy of a company’s CEO as a bus driver who needs to decide where the bus is going, how it’s going to get there, and who is going along for the ride. While most people assume the journey should start with announcing where the bus is going (sharing the vision) and getting the people on board to take it there, Collins argues the really transformative companies actually start by getting the right people on the bus and then deciding where to take it.
In today’s rapidly changing environment, if you start with “who” rather than “what”, you will be positioned to more easily adapt. Unfortunately, most organizations struggle to make the tough decisions necessary to get the right people on the bus and the wrong people off it. As a result, leaders tend to take an outdated organizational structure and the current team and try to shoehorn them into the current strategy.
Successfully executing a strategic plan requires leadership capital. There’s no way around that, and leadership capital comes from having clearly defined roles and responsibilities, as well as the people in those roles who live your values and who ultimately understand the job, want it, and have the natural inclination to do it well.
Solution: Create a Clear Accountability Chart
Creating an accountability chart helps get the right structure in place by forcing leadership to address any people issues that are impeding success.
Different from an org chart, an accountability chart looks at the primary functions of the business and outlines the top five responsibilities for each of the leadership roles within those functions. This process continues until you’ve outlined all of the roles throughout the organization that support those functions. By successfully identifying the right seats in this manner, you can then successfully put the right people in them.
For a person to be right for a seat they must fit two criteria. They must live your core values and they must understand the job, want the job, and have the natural abilities to do it well.
Often, leaders subconsciously try to cheat this process in one of two ways to avoid making the really tough decisions. Either they put a person in a seat that is an incredible performer, but doesn’t live the core values, or they place a person who lives the core values and is loved by people throughout the organization, but isn’t a good fit for the role. Both mistakes will ultimately impede the success of the organization and its strategic plan. Only with the right people in the right seats can the plan be successfully executed.
Roadblock 2: Trying to Tackle Too Much All at Once
We often tell our clients, “You will significantly overestimate what you can achieve in one year.” This isn’t to be a buzzkill. It is to help teams identify realistic goals that will keep the team engaged and feeling successful. All too often, leadership teams are comprised of the people who have visionary ideas and the risk tolerance to give them a try. As a result, these teams are susceptible to two potentially fatal flaws of execution. First, their vision may not align with their capacity to deliver, and they wind up being spread too thin. Second, they might chase every good idea that comes their way rather than staying focused on their goals, and they wind up being spread too thin.
Chris McChesney, Global Practice Leader Execution for FranklinCovey and one of the primary developers of The 4 Disciplines of Execution, frequently talks about the two opposing forces in every organization. On the one hand, there’s the “whirlwind” or “day job”, which is all the work needed just to keep the organization running. It is omnipresent. It is always urgent in nature, and therefore it is always demanding attention. On the other hand, there is the strategic plan — all of the goals to move the organization forward. While the goals are important, they never have the same level of urgency as the whirlwind. So when the important goals go toe-to-toe with the urgent whirlwind, the whirlwind wins every time.
Solution: Focus Only on the 2-3 Most Important Things
The solution is to get your team to focus. Prioritize the two to three things that are essential to move you toward your vision. If you had to pick, what is the one area your team would want to improve most in order to achieve the vision? Which battle matters most? Only after you’ve won those battles should you add the next ones.
Doing less may seem counterintuitive to your ultimate aim of moving the organization forward, but creating this level of discipline will actually get you farther, faster and with less wasted time and frustration along the way.
Roadblock 3: Not Creating a Positive Culture of Accountability
Often leaders are hesitant to create measurable expectations and a culture of accountability. Perhaps holding people to task seems too harsh or dictatorial, requires too much effort, or seemingly takes the human side out of business.
In reality, it is human nature to crave accountability. Regardless of what we do every day, we all want to know we’re succeeding. No one wakes up in the morning hoping to fail. By defining the parameters of success, you’re not only able to identify potential shortcomings, but more importantly you can help people know and celebrate when they are winning.
Solution: Keep Score
You may have heard the phrase, “What gets measured gets done.” But where leaders struggle is in identifying the right measures of success. Instead of focusing on what can be influenced, they typically look to lag measures. Sure, lag measures are easier to get, and they are directly linked to the desired outcomes. Unfortunately, they also are not influenceable. You only know you have a problem after it arises, and at that point, it’s tough to turn it around.
After you’ve identified your goals, build a scorecard to monitor if you’re on track. Be crystal clear about the difference between lead and lag measures. Lag measures measure the goal. Lead measures identify the things that lead to the goal. Lead measures are predictive of success and can be influenced by the team, which is why they are essential to track.
Your scorecard should capture the 5-15 measures and a goal for each of them in one location. Examine it weekly to help foretell your financial future and give you a chance to intercede before bigger problems arise. Boiling the organization down to good, hard data helps to cut through all of the subjectives, personalities, opinions, and egos that can sometimes derail decisions that are in the best interest of the business. The very act of measurement creates clarity and change.
Roadblock 4: The Leadership Team Clearly Understands What it Has to Do, but the Strategic Priorities Still Aren’t Getting Done
With no time or space to work on the business instead of in it, a team’s daily firefighting efforts can quickly consume their ability to execute strategic priorities. This is particularly challenging because strategic priorities often require support from multiple functions within the business, and it is difficult to find the time required to coordinate efforts and resolve any issues that might be getting in the way.
It’s one of those laws of human nature: there’s nothing like the pressure of an upcoming meeting to jolt us out of procrastination mode. Not only do regular checkpoints create personal accountability, they also provide a forum to remove barriers and coordinate efforts.
Solution: Hold Weekly Meetings
A weekly leadership team meeting establishes a cadence of accountability that ensures strategic priorities move forward toward completion. It also creates the time and space for the critical conversations and knowledge sharing that removes potential barriers and ensures alignment among the team.
While most people feel the last thing they need is another meeting, making time to talk as a team is actually a time management tool. It is far more productive than trying to connect the dots one by one. And it creates a forum for personal accountability, celebration, sharing best practices, and practicing group problem solving.
Make sure each meeting is at the same time and in the same place, starts on time and ends on time, and follows the same agenda each week. Use those precious minutes together to focus only on the strategic priorities. Identify whether the priorities are on track or off track. Assign any weekly to-dos to support the priorities and clear any barriers that may be getting in the way. Most importantly, be vigilant with your time. Eliminate all storytelling and conversations about the daily whirlwind. Focus on the task at hand.
With so many people and initiatives to coordinate, executing a strategic plan is never an easy task. Fortunately, there are now several systems and tools available today to help ensure your plan is successful. Regardless of the system you choose, always remember: the system is only as effective as the people running it. It always comes back to leadership. And there’s never any greater tool than looking teammates in the eye, holding each other accountable, and working together to remove any barriers that arise.