Why strategic plans fail
How many times have you seen a strategic plan launch to great fanfare and optimism, only to be forgotten about within a few months?
We're going to tell you some of the most common pitfalls we see as to why strategic plans fail, to help you ensure that your plan isn't one of them!
1. Lack of buy-in from the team
You can't execute a strategy alone! Indeed, as the owner of your strategic plan, you should really be one of the least important people when it comes to execution.
Why? Because ideally, you will keep yourself at arms-length from much of the delivery to allow you to retain perspective and a strategic lens. This only serves to heighten the importance of team buy-in.
A common mistake here is to underestimate the size of your 'team' when it comes to having them buy into the plan. If you have a team of 5, things are fairly easy - all 5 need to be bought in. If you have a team of 50 - things get trickier.
Often we see strategy leads doing a great job of gaining support from their immediate colleagues and direct reports, but a lousy job of ensuring that support cascades throughout the organization.
If you only have buy-in from 5 out of your 50 strong teams, then either your strategy will fail through lack of resources - or worse, if it succeeds with that level of buy-in, it probably means that it was nowhere near ambitious enough in the first place!
Tools like Cascade have of course been designed explicitly to help you get that buy-in
Even if you're not using a cloud-based solution to help your planning/execution, there are a couple of simple things you can do to help you succeed.
A lot of people assume that communication is a key part of this process - and of course, they're right.
Before you get to the communication stage, you need to start gathering feedback and inviting contributions from your team into any new strategic plan. Make sure that the first time your team hears about the plan isn't when it's finished!
Use tools like surveys, meetings, and face to face discussions to gather feedback from your whole organization on topics like:
- The organization's strengths and weaknesses
- How do they feel about the current Vision of the organization
- Who they admire in the industry (competitors) and why
Involving people as early as possible will make the next phase of the process (communication) go so much more smoothly! When it comes to that phase, the key is to communicate early and often.
We often see plans kick off with a flurry of workshops and activity, only to see communication tail off rapidly as people return to business-as-usual activities.
Schedule regular strategy sessions with your team, and stick to them.
Failure to address a lack of buy-in early is the single biggest reason why strategic plans fail!
2. Unclear Objectives
Failure of strategic planning can come about due to unclear objectives. Coming up with ideas about what your organization needs to do and knowing how to do it aren't usually a problem.
Clearly structured plans with well-written objectives are much rarer than they should be! We've written an entire blog post on creating well-crafted Strategic Objectives - you can also download ours on the topic.
As such, I'll only cover the basics here. In our experience, well-written objectives are those which:
- Have a clear link to the Vision of the organization
- Contain a clear action (a verb), a metric where possible, as well as a tightly defined window of execution (a start and end date)
- Have a single owner or captain - others can collaborate of course, but a single owner avoids ambiguity
- Are reported on a bare minimum of monthly at a regular strategy session or board meeting
A good way to 'test' the clarity of your objectives is to ask various people throughout the organization whether they remember and can clearly articulate them - as well as clearly describe how their own work and tasks relate back to a given objective.
If people are able to form this link, then not only is it likely that they are clear about the objective itself, it also suggests that your cascading process has worked effectively.
3. Failure to Account for Business as Usual
Pragmatism is a key part of any successful plan. Often when organizations create new plans, they get caught up in the excitement of the 'new' and forget to allow enough time to manage existing business activities. There are two ways that you can deal with this:
- Include BAU activities as part of your strategic plan. In theory, a well-written plan with clear Focus Areas should encompass the vast majority of your BAU activities.
Managing clients and such-like may not form part of the high-level organizational goals - but I'm pretty sure that 'Client Satisfaction' would. Just be careful not to write your new plan to 'fit' against your BAU - define what you want to achieve/change first, then see you how BAU goals fit into this.
- State clearly that your strategic plan does NOT account for BAU activities. This is probably simpler than (a) but it does have some pitfalls attached. If you're not careful, you can end up creating a divide in your organization, with some individuals focused on BAU and others on strategic change.
This is in stark contrast to point number 1 - where I strongly argue that total buy-in is key to successful execution!
4. Loss of Momentum
We've alluded to this already, but so often with strategic plans, we see a great deal of enthusiasm at the start of the process, followed by a gradual tailing off and return to business as usual.
Delivering against all of the points above (and below) will help immensely in making sure this doesn't happen to you - but here are a few other tips you can employ to stop your plan from falling into a black hole:
- Schedule regular 'Strategy Meetings' into the diary - ideally weekly. Use the word Strategy in the meeting title - that way whenever anyone looks at their schedule for the week, they'll be reminded about the importance of delivering against the plan.
- Allocate specific days or even half days to 'Strategy Work' - this can apply to marketers, salespeople, developers, it really doesn't matter. Create a block of time in everyone's diary (say a Friday afternoon) where they agree to not respond to emails or do any kind of admin, but instead will work solely on aspects of delivering the strategic plan.
More importantly, don't let people start ignoring or canceling this time! Be pragmatic enough about your workloads to ensure that this strategy time is NOT the first thing to go when things get busy/hectic - because that sends absolutely the wrong signal about how you value strategy over BAU.
- Find a third party to act as a strategic mentor. This doesn't have to be a paid-for consultant or anyone with formal training - it could just be a friend or family member. Essentially the goal here is to have someone who is untouched by business as usual activities who will regularly ask you questions about where your plan is up to.
It's key that this person is NOT inside your organization to allow them enough distance and space to be untainted by the day-to-day pressures of running the organization.
5. Unwillingness to Iterate
Another vote for pragmatism here. It is pretty unlikely that you'll get your strategic plan 100% perfect on the first attempt. Smart leaders constantly have their ear to the ground, listening to threats and opportunities and moving quickly to adjust plans accordingly. Your strategy should be no different.
Think of your plan as a living breathing thing. It's one of the reasons that cloud systems are becoming so popular for strategic planning because rather than creating and printing a plan than putting it on a wall somewhere, they encourage you to constantly adjust and tweak the plan in a real-time environment.
All of that said, you do need to avoid changing the plan so much or so regularly that you lose credibility with your people. Changes should be iterative rather than dramatic. On only very rare occasions should you be looking to make changes to your Vision, Values, or Focus Areas.
6. Lack of Alignment
Effectively communicating your strategic plan isn't the same thing as ensuring alignment. Alignment means that everyone in the organization can clearly (and accurately) articulate how their own set of goals and tasks are contributing to the strategic plan.
Measuring alignment can be hard if you're using manual strategy and goal tools such as Excel or even pen and paper. In Cascade, we've developed a proprietary formula for calculating the level of alignment in your organization by measuring the amount of work-effort people are putting in against each of the organization's strategic goals.
Even without a system to help, you need to ensure that whenever you meet with your people to discuss their goals - you're constantly challenging them as to the why of what they're doing - not just the how or the what.
One way to help drive alignment is to create a clear strategic framework and ask people to 'categorize' their activities into that framework.
For example, if 'Innovation, Service, and Growth' are the Key Focus Areas of your strategic plan, have people clearly state which of these aspects their various work projects, goals, and tasks fall into.
Run your team meetings using this structure, slotting in progress updates and agenda items under these headings.
7. Failure to Celebrate Success
Last but certainly not least, is one of the nicest and most rewarding (but so often overlooked) things that you can do to successfully deliver your plan. Celebrate!
Sometimes we get so caught up in the doing and the final outcome, that we fail to recognize the great things we achieve along the way. By celebrating success in delivering our strategy, we reinforce a culture that highlights the importance of strategy to the whole organization.
Let's say you have 10 strategic objectives that make up your plan - at a minimum, you should be celebrating every time you achieve one - even if that means once per month or more regularly.
It doesn't have to be anything huge - it could be a team lunch, an early office departure on a Friday afternoon, or maybe a reward (monetary or otherwise).
Don't be too finicky about 'who' gets to celebrate - this needs to be a whole-team celebration, even if one person or team did more than the rest. Why? Because the whole point of this article is that it is your team who will deliver your strategy, not one single person.
Summary of why strategic plans fail
There are undoubtedly a whole host of other reasons why strategic plans fail - but in our experience of working with hundreds of strategic plans, these are by far the most common - but thankfully, also the easiest to avoid! We'd love to hear your thoughts on this list and your suggestions for additional pitfalls we can all strive to avoid.