Watching the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team beat England, it occurred to me that the game was a perfect example of strategy in action. A great team was testing their skills and tactics on the pitch, fully prepared to meet unexpected challenges. Granted, business will never have the flash of World Cup soccer. But strategic planning shouldn’t be cringeworthy. Shaping the future is exciting. Why are people tempted to flirt with a sick day when the meeting rolls around?
According to Gartner, a global research and advisory company, 56 percent of corporate executives and their teams believe that strategic planning is a waste of time. An Ernst and Young study reports that 66 percent of corporate strategy is never executed.
.orgCommunity recently surveyed members to learn more about their views on this topic. Out of approximately 82 respondents, 68 percent reported planning on a regular basis, at least every 3 years. However, only 20 respondents indicated that an implementation plan was part of the process.
Based on those statistics, it isn’t surprising if leaders and staff greet the planning retreat with a dose of skepticism. They already know, more often than not, that what happens at the retreat stays at the retreat. It’s hard to be enthusiastic about ideas that never get off the drawing board.
Aiming for the stars is admirable; strategy should create transformation. We can’t all plot the next brilliant disruption, but every plan should, at the very least, be credible. The only way to give your process validity is to ensure that goals and ideas translate into action. Anything short of bringing home the deliverables is probably an unnecessary drain on resources. These are steps you can take to keep your plan moving forward along the path to execution.
Design for Implementation
Set goals that are possible. Don’t plan to start a for-profit subsidiary with a 3-person staff and the minuscule budget to match. Dream big, but be realistic. Focus on projects that you can achieve with existing resources. If you simply can’t abandon your audacious goal, accept that it resides in a far-off galaxy and strategize around producing the vehicle to take you there.
When all the teams that will execute strategy aren’t represented in the planning process, you’re not likely to have the ownership needed for a smooth implementation. This seems like common sense. People who have a stake in developing ideas are invested in bringing them to life. But, I don’t always see associations making the effort to fully engage their constituents. In fact, in our survey, one-third of respondents reported that their boards were not significantly involved in planning.
Additionally, few participants reported taking advantage of the following expanded opportunities for engagement and information gathering:
- Expert panels (10)
- Staff retreats (26)
- Competitor assessments (29)
- Input from outside the industry (29)
Everyone doesn’t need to be physically present during the planning meeting. But, the process should offer vehicles for staff teams, volunteers and even outsiders to contribute along with methods to acknowledge and disseminate their feedback.
If employees will be required to use new technology or learn skills, be sure to provide adequate training well in advance of launch dates.
Sell the Benefits
Engagement doesn’t just happen. You need to generate the momentum to move your strategy forward. A communications plan should be an integral part of the process. Enlist those who are closest to the strategy to spark enthusiasm in others. Team leaders should be able to clearly explain the rationale for, and impact of, achieving goals and objectives. Remember, everyone isn’t a great communicator. Provide talking points so messaging stays on brand across audiences and there is a common language for communicating ideas. Incentives, such as bonuses tied to achievement or public recognition, can motivate staff to bring in the big win.
Make Room for Change
Life gets in the way of our best laid plans. It’s unrealistic to expect a strategy that was developed in the perfect world of a conference room to unfold as neatly in a competitive and volatile business environment. These are stumbling blocks that can impede the ability to execute:
- Unreliable data
- Systems and processes that are not up to the task
- Faulty assumptions
- Inaccurate projections
- Inadequate staffing
- Unforeseen complications
Accept that every plan needs refinement. Ask questions like the following at regular intervals. These check-ins will add the polish to goals and objectives that makes them deliver on investment:
- Is the initial implementation proceeding smoothly? If not, what are the issues?
- Are benchmarks being achieved?
- Have there been changes in the planning assumptions or the business environment?
- Have resources proved to be adequate?
Setbacks are discouraging and may be difficult to admit. But sweeping problems under the rug is a guaranteed roadblock. Don’t navigate around mistakes. Clear the path to move forward. By candidly addressing obstacles you create the opportunity for a fix or to abandon a strategy that is destined to fail.
Yes, everyone has a stake in the plan. But you know how that goes. Identifying accountable leaders, anticipated benchmarks and dates for progress reports is the secret sauce for execution. Among our survey respondents, 38 percent either disagreed or were neutral about whether senior management was monitoring and communicating progress and only 25 respondents posted progress on the public pages of their websites.
If you ask association leaders to list the steps to an executable plan, most probably would agree with these recommendations. This makes me wonder why more executives aren’t taking their own advice. I think that it’s because we don’t put a high enough premium on strategy. We give it lip service but are sometimes unwilling to dedicate the time, commitment and follow-through necessary to bring about successful execution. Day-to-day operations can seem more pressing than activities that are critical to keeping us in the long game. Although the stakes are not as clear-cut as World Cup soccer, they are high. Members, staff, and even, the public depend on our getting strategy right and taking action to keep associations strong.