Operationalizing Your Strategic Plan

We have all experienced it. The dreaded process of spending hours upon hours creating a strategic business plan that maps out the goals of the organization. We develop the targets and create lofty initiatives only to see the year come and go as we scratch our heads and wonder why we didn’t achieve all our goals. The plan may have been solid, but the execution was flawed.

I have witnessed countless examples in my career where companies establish strategic goals for the organization, but fail to create an operational process to hit those goals. There is a disproportionate amount of time spent on the strategy compared with the detailed tactical plan of executing against that strategy. All too often, managers attempt to point their teams toward the strategic end game, but provide little guidance of the step-by-step tactics in order to get there.

The strategy is the sexiness of the plan, the tactical execution, not so much. Often, in order to achieve the strategic goal, the discipline required for executing the vision is the equivalent of “watching paint dry”. It is not that fun to be a grinder. But grinding through the minutiae with a well thought through execution plan is often the difference between success and failure. I will take a team of grinders over a team of strategists every time.

Here are some hints to converting your strategic business plan into an actionable series of tactics:

Write An Actionable Plan: Business plans come in many shapes and sizes. Strategic business plans should provide financial targets to achieve, high-level strategic initiatives to reach those targets and an overarching philosophy in which the company operates. In my experience, this is the easiest part of the task – identifying core areas of the business that needs to be addressed. Much like putting together a household budget, it is easy to say, “pay off the mortgage” or “save for college”, the larger challenge is actually doing it! Write the strategic plan with action steps in mind.

Morph Strategy To Tactical: A business plan that hits the mark is one that not only identifies the strategic direction of the company, but also maps out the tactical elements that enable the company to execute on the plan. This is where most companies fail to deliver. They fail to operationalize their strategic plan into tactical initiatives. Why are these strategies going to deliver the greatest return on investment and effort? How are they going to complete and deliver on their strategic plan? Who is responsible for all of the steps required to execute? Where and in what part of the company are these strategies executed?

Cascade Throughout Team: The strategic plan generally comes from the top and it is up to each of the department heads to internalize these plans and cascade the tactics throughout their teams. Specific tasks should be assigned with timetables to ensure that initiatives are being executed on-time and on-plan. Each day, week and month should be mapped by the team in milepost form in order achieve the end result. Again, like saving for college, it has to be a methodical, disciplined approach that sets aside monies weekly or monthly in order to save enough over a prolonged period of time. A manager sets the benchmark, helps the team lay out the tactics and mileposts, and then holds their time accountable to achieving those mileposts.

Set Targeted Benchmarks: In my opinion, this is the single-most important item in being able to deliver on a strategic plan – delivering on action plans in a step-by-step fashion. Fifteen years ago I had back surgery that stopped my days of running. I have since taken to walking- a lot of walking. In fact, this year, since I fly from Raleigh to Boston quite frequently for business, I set an annual target of walking the equivalent of Raleigh to Boston and back to Raleigh – roughly 1,225 miles. The strategic goal was set; the tactical goal was approximately 3.36 miles a day, every day for the year. I can’t walk 1,225 in a day so armed with my Nike Plus system that measures my miles; I stay abreast of my progress every day with an eye on the end goal. My daily monitoring operationalizes the strategic goal by breaking it down into daily tasks. At the time of this writing and some 290+ days into the year, I am averaging 3.41 miles a day.

Monitor Weekly & Monthly: My walking example above lays credence to the old adage “You Can’t Manage What You Don’t Measure”. The management of my tactical execution of an overall strategic goal not only indicates that I am on target, but also provides the inspiration to stay on task. Achieving strategic success is one part execution and one part inspiration. Hitting mileposts on a regular basis provides the ongoing desire to see the plan to its full fruition. Setting up monitoring mileposts not only keeps the taskmaster on plan, but also allows for the manager to communicate these successes to their peers. Strategic targets can be daunting at the onset, but breaking them down into “chunkables” makes achieving them manageable.

Ten Major Fears That Scare Small Businesses Away From Strategic Planning

An often offered comment to me when I speak about strategic planning to small business owners and managers is that their company or organization is too small for strategic planning. Or they will offer any number of other excuses why they do not use strategic planning for their business. In my opinion, this is a sad commentary on the thinking of these small business people. They do not realize or comprehend that their business or organization is on their way to the business graveyard without a strategic plan.

Well, I really believe if the truth were told, the real reason they do not do strategic planning is related more to fear than anything else. And so I ask this question: “why are so many of these businesses strategically challenged, strategically averse and/or just plain scared or fearful of strategic planning?” Your Strategic Thinking Business Coach reviewed and reflected upon experiences with this type of small business thinking and offers the following list of ten major fears that drive small businesses away from strategic planning.

Fear #1: Fear of being intimidated and overwhelmed by the strategic planning process.

Many small business owners and leaders have pre-conceived an idea of what strategic planning is and fear that the process of strategic planning will be too overwhelming for them. Therefore, they feel intimidated by the process and do not want to even start the process.

Fear #2: Fear of repeated past bad experiences with strategic planning.

Small business leaders may have had some extremely negative and possibly harmful experiences with strategic planning in the past. They may have had a very poor consultant that was brought in and nearly ruined the business. Maybe they spent weeks in meetings without accomplishing one thing because they did not use a professional facilitator. Or maybe they launched a plan without any means of accountability.

Fear #3: Fear of the amount of anticipated time and commitment to develop a strategic plan.

Small businesses do not have a large corporate staff and are so busy putting out fires and managing day-to-day activities that they believe they will not have time to focus on long-term and strategic thinking. They want to keep working “in the business” but avoid working “on he business.” And this translates to a basic fear that if they divert time to strategic planning, the business will fall apart in the meantime.

Fear #4: Fear of academic or the ivory tower thinking.

Many small business owners are distrustful of theories, systems, generalizations and formulas. There is the fear of “this is fine in theory but I does not work in the real world.”

Fear #5: Fear of the facilitation process.

The most effective strategic planning meetings use the skills of a professional facilitator. Small business owners and mangers may fear that the meetings, no matter how well intended, will end up as gripe sessions or hours of aimless wandering without a clear agenda or purpose.

Fear #6: Fear of commitment.

A benefit of strategic planning is that it leads to decisive action. So, in companies where the owner and management likes to “hold back” or “hedge bets,” work on many things at the same time and “keep all options open,” this can be a real problem. This stems from a fear of making a decision and following through with commitment to carry out that decision.

Fear #7: Fear of accountability.

Most small business owners are only accountable to themselves and many times that really means they are “not accountable to anyone” and are not really held accountable. With strategic planning, there is a system of accountability built into the plan and this causes some real fear and distress to some small business people.

Fear #8: Fear of failure.

In small businesses the cost of failure is high and the personal risks are great. In large companies, the management is really dealing with someone else’s money. In small business and especially with entrepreneurs, one’s livelihood is at stake. A winning strategic plan could help the entrepreneur realize his dream, but a losing plan could result in a nightmare.

Why a Strategic Plan is Important

As consultants, we work with a variety of businesses across a number of industries as well as non-profit entities. In reviewing the performance of these organizations, it is interesting to note that those businesses that perform at the highest levels usually have some sort of formalized strategic plan in place and have implemented it well.

On the other hand, those businesses that struggle usually have no plan in place and seem to flounder in their attempts to be successful. And many of the organizations that are successful in the implementation of their strategic plans use a simplified strategic planning process to get the plan written and implemented more quickly and efficiently. One of the things that caused some to proclaim that strategic planning had lost it luster was the tendency of some to drag out the process too long and to create more work than necessary. The simplified, rapid development approach has helped immensely in getting good strategic plans developed and implemented.

In order for a business to be successful, there needs to be a road map for success. The development of sound business strategy is a result of the strategic planning process. A significant mistake that is made by businesses large and small is defining critical business strategies without going through this process. A strategic plan helps to provide direction and focus for all employees. It points to specific results that are to be achieved and establishes a course of action for achieving them.

Another common mistake is simply allowing the organization to wander aimlessly without having even generalized goals in place. Having well defined goals, objectives, strategies and tactics reduces the risk of business failure and helps increase the likelihood of solid success. And speaking strictly from the perspective of a manager, owner, director, president, CEO, etc., their own success can be defined by having a well developed strategic plan in place that is well implemented.

A strategic plan helps the various work units within an organization to align themselves with common goals. But perhaps most importantly, the strategic planning process provides managers, owners and entrepreneurs the necessary framework for developing sound business strategy.

Arguably, the leading cause of business failure is not having a strategic plan in place that is implemented effectively. If a business has little idea where it is headed, it will wander aimlessly with priorities changing constantly and employees confused about the purpose of their jobs. And it could chase strategies that have little or no chance of success.

Building a strategic plan is not difficult. It will take some thought and some feedback from customers and others, but businesses should be routinely garnering feedback from appropriate constituent groups on an ongoing basis. The process of developing a strategic plan should be rewarding for all involved and usually helps develop stronger communications between members of the planning team.

Managers and business owners need a well developed strategic plan in order to effectively establish expectations for their employees. Without a plan, expectations are developed in a void and there is little or no alignment with common goals and strategies. A good strategic plan looks out 2 to 5 years and describes clearly what market, product/service, pricing, marketing and other strategies will be followed. In short, it defines how the business will grow and prosper over the defined planning horizon.

Are Non-Profits Prepared For Strategic Planning?

I wish I could count the number of times I have attended a non-profit strategic planning session, or discussed the need to have (or update) one in a board meeting, or been invited to serve as the facilitator. It has always – always – struck me that the strategic planning session should just be starting about the time that it is actually ending (e.g., too much time is wasted at the beginning and then a frenzy results at the end). The purpose of this article is to outline some observations over 30 years of strategic planning experience and to share suggestions that will improve the chances for a successful outcome.

Holding a Strategic Planning Session
At some point in time, every member of a non-profit board is going to hear the suggestion: “let’s hold a strategic planning session!” from a fellow board member or staff member. It’s not a bad idea but, unfortunately, it’s often a waste of time and produces no measurable outcomes. I want to share some observations and thoughts about strategic planning – invite debate – and see if we can come up with some guidelines that make the investment of time worthwhile. I have often said that strategic planning is a ‘process’ and not an ‘event’ – and I still very much believe that statement is true. However, maybe I should also add the caveat that a successful ‘process’ does indeed require an ‘event’ – or series of events – which is precisely the point. If you agree with my belief that the event often ends about the time it should be starting, then you would have to agree that additional follow-up after the event is required in order to create a meaningful strategic plan because the plan stopped short of completion during the original event. And a lot of time was used inefficiently, which also makes people reluctant to participate in the future.

A Working Document
Without a doubt, the primary way that I judge a successful strategic plan is by seeing a copy of it a year after the ‘event.’ If it’s a bit too dusty (which is often said in jest, but is true!) and if the pages are in pristine condition, then the event that created the plan was obviously not successful in motivating action. However, if the copy is dog-eared, marked up, added to, pages tagged, and otherwise well-used; then the event was super successful because a ‘process’ was indeed born and the need for ongoing action was instilled. In my opinion, successful outcomes are too rare in the strategic planning ‘implementation’ phase. The copy of the strategic plan that I described as a success is one that has become a working document, which is what planning is all about.

Defining ‘Strategic’
From an analytical standpoint, one way to define something is to determine what it is not. Strategy is different from ‘tactical’ or ‘operational’ (which is actually performing a task). Strategy is more subjective and cerebral; it involves thinking about an issue in broader terms than usual; thinking about circumstances that do not currently exist (i.e., future oriented) and determining how to adapt the organization to benefit from those predicted opportunities or avoid anticipated threats. Often, it involves thinking about an issue totally differently than ever before (which is VERY hard to do). Strategy development is not the same as operations implementation. For example, when I have been invited to ‘do’ strategic planning for an organization, I always ask if there is an Operating Plan; i.e., if you don’t know how to perform your core business every day (Operating Plan), why would you want to spend time working on a future-oriented process (Strategic Plan)? Strategy (highly subjective) is the opposite of operational (highly objective/defined/specific). Objective is ‘cut and dried’ – there is a procedure/process/outcome that arises from certain actions, done at certain times, in a certain way to produce known/certain outcomes. We already know if we do these certain things what we will get. Most people can adequately perform what they are taught/instructed. However, developing strategy – even the process of thinking about it – is very different. A strategic planning session led by a ‘doer’ instead of a ‘strategist’ and ‘critical thinker’ will yield disappointing results; however, ‘doers’ can be very helpful in participating in the development of strategy if they are properly guided. A couple of very simple examples of strategic vs. operational issues will make the point:

Funding
Operational – How are we going to make payroll next month?
Strategic – How do we need to adapt our operations to comply/excel with the recent changes for non-profits by Congress?

New Program
Operational – We need to add a new program to our existing series.
Strategic – We need to add a new series to cover new topics that will take our organization in a new direction.

Operating Plans Are Important
Let me be quick to tout the benefits of an Operating Plan. Properly executed, an Operating Planning Session can provide or refine specific guidance/clarification/policy on any number of day-to-day issues that really can be a big help when running the organization. The primary difference between strategic and operating (which is a huge difference) is that operating plans deal with the ‘here and now’ – with processes and policies that will improve the current business function – strategic plans, simply put, engage the participants in thought processes meant to challenge the current business function by looking into the future and assessing opportunities, threats, weaknesses, and strengths. A good Operating Plan can minimize daily confusion/questions about the manner in which specific job functions should be conducted. The ‘event’ of operations planning – getting the appropriate team together to discuss, debate, and decide the issues – is, in-of-itself, a very worthwhile team-building and clarifying session (if properly planned and executed). While Operating Plans are beyond the scope of this article, I wanted to make sure they were mentioned in a positive context.