Why Your Strategy May Not Be Working: It May Be Just a Plan

I’m a strong proponent of the value of strategic planning but I’m also glad to acknowledge that the vast majority of strategic plans rarely drive real action or measurable results. The reasons why are numerous, but a recent article I read in Harvard Business Review made a great point about strategy.

In The Big Lie of Strategic Planning, Roger L. Martin, makes the point that, inevitably, whenever the word “strategy” is used, it’s often in conjunction with the word “plan” — those two words then become, somehow, inevitably–and inaccurately–intertwined.¬†

This piece resonated with me because I’ve often said that I wish that we called the whole process “strategic doing” instead of “strategic planning.” The big benefit of the process, after all, is not in the planning–it’s in the doing.

Your plan is not your strategy. Your strategy is not your plan.

In fact, one of the biggest disappointments I tend to have when working with groups to develop strategic plans is that they rarely take the time to create real strategies. There are a variety of reasons for this:

  • The concept of strategy can be difficult to grasp even for the most intelligent of business people.
  • It’s difficult for those in the planning process to step outside the operations of their work–the issues they are dealing with¬†now–to think creatively, and strategically, about the future.
  • The inputs to the planning process may be based more on supposition and opinion than real data.
  • They’re engaged in GroupThink, stepping over elephants in the room and hesitant to rock the boat, especially when their bosses and senior leaders are in the room, and often at the root of whatever issues or problems may exist.

What to do about it? Martin offers some general advice in four broad categories:

  • To create great strategies: reconcile yourself to feeling uncomfortable. It’s okay to feel uncomfortable. It’s okay to disagree. In fact, disagreement and dissension can be good when managed effectively. Executives, says Martin, should attempt to “keep strategy where it should be: outside the comfort zone.”
  • Keep it simple. Effective planning efforts do not have to take months and months of meetings and fill pages of binders. In fact, recently I’ve been encouraging clients to create simple one-sheet plans that contain the measurable metrics they’ll be tracking and to focus on ensuring accountability and follow-up.
  • Don’t look for perfection. So many do. But you’re not going to find it. There is no such thing as a perfect plan and much time is wasted in the attempt to create one. Instead of looking for perfection, our recommendation is to look for progress.
  • Make the logic explicit. Don’t go down the path of creating vague plans based on assumptions that can’t be documented or backed up through real experience and data. Be explicit in terms of what you expect, why you expect it and how you will achieve it.

Is your strategy just a plan? Or have you been able to come up with a way to embed strategy into the fabric of your organization?

It’s not about the paper. It’s about progress.

Recommended Reading:

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Strategic Planning

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