Strategic Planning With Implementation in Mind

Plans come in all shapes and sizes, but the sorts of plans that I have in mind are those whose effective implementation is vital to the organisation’s continued well-being. The plan might be a marketing plan involving the development of new markets and products; it might be a restructuring to enhance flexibility and customer focus or the adoption of a concept such as lean thinking. It might be all of these which, together, form the elements of a strategic business plan. The common denominators are that the effective implementation of the plan involves many more people than were involved in the plan’s formulation and the price of failure to execute is high.

The three fundamental reasons for poor strategy implementation are:

  1. Planning and implementation are seen as two entirely separate activities whereas the reality is that the seeds of success or failure are sown the moment the planners sit down to plan.
  2. Planners spend a disproportionate amount of time deciding what they are going to do rather than dividing their time equally between that and planning how they are going to do it.
  3. Too few people are involved in the “how” process – assessing the plan’s feasibility and its impact on all the organisation’s resources.

These are further broken down into the following 13 barriers to good planning:

Planning Barrier No.1 – “The plan did not take into account the new environment we were operating in”.

If the plan ignores the present or fails to predict the future environment that the organisation will be operating in, it is doomed to failure from the start.

Planning Barrier No.2 – “The rationale behind the plan was never incorporated into the written document”

It is said that 70% of people will change, given a good enough reason to do so. Since almost by definition these days plans involve change, the rationale behind the proposed changes must be explained and justified. It is not sufficient to state that “this is what we are going to do”. Management has to articulate the debate that resulted in a particular course of action being proposed.

Planning Barrier No.3 – “There was no overall goal that everyone could relate to”

My company conducts Customer Satisfaction Surveys and one of the key outcomes is a weighted Customer Satisfaction Index (CSI). A division of a large public company recorded an average CSI that was satisfactory but which masked a significant problem – inconsistency. The 24% of clients who rated the supplier very highly was offset by the 27% of clients who were dissatisfied with the supplier’s performance. The supplier decided to set an overall goal of a certain CSI to replace the contribution margin that they had previously used. Although the staff found the new measure of performance much easier to relate to than the old one, it would have been even better if the revised goal was to eliminate any customer ratings below an agreed figure in an agreed time frame.

Planning Barrier No.4 – “The plan was just a series of activities – there were no clear results to aim for”

If you were trying to lose weight, you might decide to exercise more, drink less alcohol and eat more green vegetables. These are activities. I’m sure your campaign would be far more successful if you set a goal weight to be achieved at the end of 12 months together with intermediate monthly targets. Corporate plans are no different.

Planning Barrier No.5 – “Those responsible for the plan’s execution were not sufficiently involved at the planning stage”

There is an old adage that says that the more people who plan the battle, the less there are to battle the plan. Not only does this strategy begin the transfer of ownership from the “planners” to the “implementers” but it also results in a better quality of planning.

Planning Barrier No.6 – “The planners failed to integrate the plan with the current circumstances facing the organisation”

Very few planners start with the luxury of a clean sheet of paper. As a consequence any plan needs to address the present as well as the future. Womack & Jones in their book “Lean Thinking” recount the story of a company that decided to embrace the concept of “Just-in-Time” – reducing inventories and manufacturing batch sizes. Unfortunately for them, they made no fundamental changes to their production system that remained as inflexible as before. Manufacturing costs and freight costs skyrocketed due to increased machine downtime and the need to airfreight customer orders to meet delivery times.

These six barriers are connected to the first component of any plan which is deciding “this is what we are going to do”. The next stage is to think through the implications of stage 1 of the plan on every function that makes up the organisation.

Planning Barrier No.7 – “The implications of the plan were not sufficiently worked through by the planners”

For example, what if the plan calls for the development of six new products a year? Such a target has implications for Development, Production, Marketing, Sales, Distribution, Supply, HR and Finance. To minimise this problem, you need to involve the people with detailed knowledge of these functions at the planning stage.

Planning Barrier No.8 – “Insufficient time was spent planning before moving to implementation”

You would think that with all their experience, Boeing could design and bring into service a new airliner in the timeframe originally envisaged. This certainly wasn’t the case with the 787 “Dreamliner”. It was four years late into service mainly because of the problems encountered by not only out-sourcing the production of many components using new technology but in some cases also out-sourcing design. As one senior Boeing executive admitted – “… we put a global supply chain together without thinking through some of the consequences”.

Once the issue of “how we are going to do it” has been thought through, the next step is to look at the implications for human resources and finance. These are the two key Enabling Functions. Without people and money, no plan can be implemented.

Armed with the knowledge of “this is what we want to do” and “this is how we are going to do it”, the next set of questions to be asked is whether the organisation has the right number of staff with the right expertise in the right places to effectively implement the plan.

Planning Barrier No.9 – “The implementation of the plan required changes in the current organisational structure that management was not prepared to make”

Furthermore, is the organisational structure suitable to implement the planned changes? Under the direction of Lou Gerstner IBM underwent massive organisational changes in the 90′s as it moved from a technology driven hardware company to a market driven services company. The “old guard” resisted such changes to the status quo and the reorganisation would not have succeeded, had not Gerstner redistributed the “levers of power”.

Planning Barrier No.10 – “The planners underestimated the cost of implementation”

By this stage of the planning process, you will have built up a shopping list of the requirements necessary to bring your plan to reality. New infrastructure, new equipment, new IT systems… to say nothing of new people for new roles. If you cannot afford to implement the plan in its present guise, then maybe you can stagger investment or extend the period for implementation – or maybe you have to reduce the scope of the plan so it is within your means to execute. Far better that you come to the realisation now that you cannot afford the costs of the strategy implementation than discover it six months down the track.

Planning Barrier No.11 – “There were no clear subsidiary objectives”

It was the Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu who said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Similarly, the achievement of the goal will be dependent on a large number of subsidiary objectives and the strategies to achieve them. It is so important that these objectives are related to “how we are going to do it” rather than “this is what we want to do”. In effect, we plan from the top down but execute from the bottom up.

Every plan should conclude with an initial Action Plan. “Initial” is emphasised because action planning is a rolling exercise. As some actions are completed, others take their place. The final two barriers relate to the transitional phase where the focus on strategic planning gives way to one on execution.

Planning Barrier No.12 – “There was no Action program that set out the objective of each action, who was to be responsible for it and its completion date”

There is one action that is frequently overlooked and that is to communicate the totality of the plan to everyone who will play a part in its execution. If you want to engage your staff – and who doesn’t – you have to explain where the organisation is now, where it’s going and why and each person’s role in getting there.

Planning Barrier No.13 – “Management underestimated the time required for implementation – we simply did not have enough hours in the day to complete the actions that we were responsible for by the date indicated and do our “normal jobs” at the same time”

This very real barrier needs to be addressed at the planning stage – not when the execution of the plan starts to flounder. Before agreeing to completion dates with those responsible for completing actions, talk with them, make sure you understand what is involved in carrying out the action and arrange for them to receive assistance if necessary.

The quality of execution is dependent on the quality of the strategic planning. The good news is that as you successfully tackle each barrier in sequence the next barrier, and the one after that become less daunting.

Thirteen Elements of Effective Planning

All plans are not good plans. In fact, even good plans can fail. We cannot predict the future – we can only imagine it imperfectly. In our companies and organizations, effective planning is a social activity. Deciding on a strategic planning process as a group, rather than as an individual, adds even greater complexity to an already complex task. Collaborative and effective planning techniques, then, require 13 essential elements.

1. Effective and Strategic Planning Process

First, effective planning requires a process, and that strategic planning process should include the remaining 12 elements of good planning. In collaborative team planning, that process must be structured and disciplined in order to be efficient and thorough. Without a process, your planning techniques will be awkward, inefficient and often insufficient.

2. Effective Planning Techniques: An Envisioned Future / Objective

When we envision the future, we must describe it clearly and provide specific measurements in order to judge our success. To this end, the objective of our effective planning techniques is goal we envision attaining in the future. Objectives must be clear to all involved. They must also have a scope that is commensurate with the span of control of those involved with the effective planning process. An objective that is not achievable by those tasked with developing a plan is, obviously, doomed to failure. Objectives must also be measurable. Without measurements of success, there is no means of establishing whether or not the objective was achieved, and your strategic planning process will be flawed.

3. Dynamic, Adaptable Planning

In terms of effective planning, “dynamic” means that plans are adaptable, in two ways. First, the act of effective planning considers the current and predicted environment and adapts the plan accordingly. Second, in the strategic planning process, plans must be devised in such a way so that they are not overly detailed. Effective planning ensures that your plans can adapt to changes that occur while the plan is being executed.

4. Iterative Improvements

Effective planning at your organization will also be iterative. By “iterative,” we mean that a plan will improve continuously from one iteration, or version, to another before it is executed in the strategic planning process. The iterative nature of planning supports its adaptive or dynamic nature. Iteration can be sped up by an effective planning technique known as “Red Teaming.” In Red Teaming, a group of individuals outside the planning effort are invited to criticize the plan or expose its weaknesses, acting as a form of rapid iteration and improvement.

5. Effective Planning Requires that You Learn from Experience

A complex and rapidly changing environment demands the ability to rapidly learn from the changes in that environment. Even the most well-educated and trained organization will soon become obsolescent as changes in the environment eventually overwhelm it. Good organizational planning requires sophisticated and effective planning techniques that the organization learns continually, through interaction with its environment and the execution of its plans.

6. Means to Achieve / Course of Action

The central element of all effective planning techniques is the Course of Action (COA). These are the actual tasks that must be completed, whether in parallel, in series, or a combination of both, to achieve the goal. For the most part, in a strategic planning process, the Course of Action, for simple plans, is intuitive or even obvious. However, for most organizations, plans may require great detail. Therefore, an effective planning process must be flexible enough to handle both simple and detailed plans. Effective planning processes should have the ability to repeat the planning process at successively lower levels in the organization, while supporting the objectives of the overall plan.

7. Decentralized Effective Planning

Another effective planning technique is the decentralization of plans, closely related to the flexible and successively repeatable nature of the Course of Action. Effective planning teams should not plan beyond their scope or expertise. In other words, the executive team of a large corporation should not develop the details of a strategic planning process to replace a main server in their IT infrastructure. Such a task is both out of their scope and, most likely, their expertise.

8. Individual Accountability

The scope and detail of effective planning is concluded when each task within a Course of Action is assigned to a single individual, not a team, to complete. Without individual accountability to each task and each plan, there is a significant risk of miscommunication, misunderstanding, and ultimately, failure.

9. Effective Planning Techniques Support Initiative and Good Judgment

General George S. Patton said that plans “[...] should be made by those who are going to execute them.” Decentralization and accountability go far in supporting the success of effective planning techniques. However, when a strategic planning process is developed by the team responsible for accomplishing the plan’s objective, the overall quality and likelihood of creating a successful plan improves exponentially.

10. Consider Resources

Effective planning means not committing to or wasting resources unnecessarily. In a strategic planning process, planners must determine the appropriate targets or objectives and focus resources upon those objectives. Because resources are often limited, prioritizing and planning successive phases of implementation may be necessary.

11. Assess Risk: Leadership Responsibility

Resources are considered carefully at every level of effective planning. Furthermore, the assessment of objectives, threats and resources are critical steps in every strategic planning process that, when taken together, form the basic risk assessment for any plan. Without the necessary resources to either avoid or mitigate the threats to accomplishing an objective, the risks in undertaking that plan should be given due consideration by the leadership within the organization. Because risk is often necessary, the final decision to execute the plan is left to its leaders, not the planning team.

12. Participatory and Cognitively Diverse

Isolating planning in a single individual or a group of individuals without the benefit of field experience and a diversity of knowledge, skills, and abilities is a recipe for failure. The world we live in is increasingly complex. Problem-solving in our complex world requires teams of cognitively diverse individuals contributing their unique knowledge to form a combination of effective planning techniques. If planning is conducted by a single individual or by groups of people with similar knowledge, skills and abilities, the qualities necessary to solve complex problems and to create an innovative strategic planning process will be absent.

13. The Most Effective Plans are Simple

The more complex a design, the more likely it will fail. As Statistical Process Control and Six Sigma methodologies instruct, the greater the number of steps in a process, the greater the potential for a defect. That is why it is critical that the planning process remains simple. Simplicity is not just about minimizing the number of tasks, it’s about making sure that each task is clearly defined through answering some simple questions: “who will do what and when.”

There is a paradox at work in effective preparation. It is simply this: that our human tendency is to implement plans rigidly while the purpose of a plan, in light of the complexity and constant change in the world, is to define objectives and establish a point of departure to react to change. The paradox of the strategic planning process is that effective planning does not involve merely creating a list of sequenced tasks, but establishing a constantly evolving problem-solving process that adapts and thrives in the environment.