Most everyone has read the maxim, “Plan your work and work your plan.” This is simple and effective advice—when it’s followed. Unfortunately, it can also be overwhelming when it comes to ensuring that everyone in the organization knows what the strategic plan is and how they can directly support it. Executives assume that creating strategic plans will automatically transform their organization and people; however, that’s often not the case.

About 11 years ago, I met with “John,” a president of a university. A few hours into our first meeting, beaming with pride, he handed me a beautiful, leather-bound strategic plan. His team, with the help of an outside consultant, had been meeting monthly for nearly a year, and at that point were a mere month or so from completing the plan. I thumbed through it quickly and said, “This is beautiful, John, and very well laid out. Tell me, what do you intend to do with it once it’s complete?”

“I’m not sure,” he replied, with a quizzical look.

During my more than 15 years of consulting, experience tells me that nearly 95 percent of strategic plans are shelved and collecting dust within six weeks of completion. Plans are easy to create, but on their own they don’t provide outlines for implementation. Further, without a way to modify behavior (and consistently measure it), you don’t have a strategic plan that will provide any sort of realistic ROI.

When it comes to strategic planning, quite often resources are allocated based on a very destructive misconception. You see, many well-meaning executives, and too many consultants, assume that the plan will execute, measure, and create sustained behavioral change by itself. Anyone who has spent a few years at the executive level knows that plans of any kind don’t implement themselves. Every year, however, executive teams go through the same ritual, taking time away from the office to review the strategic plan process. They tell themselves, “This year will be different—we will follow through.”

The intention and desire may be there, but the skills it takes to execute, measure, and create sustained behavioral change are very different than the skills it takes to create a document. This is where many executive teams run into trouble. I’ve found that about a third of executives intend to execute, and actually try for a month or two. Another third have good intentions but never seem to get around to it once they return to the office and face the onslaught of work. The final third never really intend to execute but keep this to themselves because it wouldn’t be politically safe to voice their real opinions. In this way, the cycle continues year after year with the best of “intentions.”

Earlier this year I spent three days with an executive team, helping to create their strategic plan. The first two days were filled with a gap analysis; an overview of their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT); and the creation of an outline of their top five organizational objectives. We then highlighted specific departmental goals that would directly support the organizational objectives.

The third and final day of these meetings proved to be very different than anything the managers had experienced before. The first half of the day was extremely difficult for them because I pointed at team members and repeatedly asked them to tell me:
• Exactly what did they intend to do Monday morning to start the process?
• How did they intend to share the news with their staff?
• What priorities would they choose to drop to free up the resources necessary to achieve the new objectives?
• How would they create buy-in and coach their staff on how to execute? (In essence, how would their focus, skills, and behaviors differ from those of the past?)
• Specifically, how did they intend to measure behavioral progress and improvement after one week, 30 days, 60 days, 90 days?

I could feel the mood in the room change quickly, as their eyes and body language expressed everything from looks of doubt to slight panic. Much like that university president from years earlier, the attendees thought that plans automatically implemented themselves.

Outlining plans on what to do is one thing, but making changes to behaviors to achieve new goals is another. Following are the 10 actions we took in the weeks following the initial meeting to ensure the plan was executed, and that those plans would translate into new statements and behaviors that positively affected the internal and external customers:

1. Organizational and department objectives are there to be achieved, not merely aspired to.

2. Goals must be realistic. Choose no more than four organizational objectives and no more than seven department objectives that will directly support the organizational objectives. If these objectives require long timelines to complete, break them into manageable sections, and be sure to closely measure progress.

3. Have the discipline to say no to good opportunities that come along but don’t fit the strategic plan.

4. Know precisely how and when you will deliver the plan to employees. A good rule of thumb is to announce the plan to the broader organization within three days of returning to the office following the initial meeting. With this particular client, we decided that the CEO and each executive would meet with his/her departments and deliver the organizational objectives and a general overview of the department goals.

5. Begin executing quickly. In our example, within three days of the plan’s introduction to the rest of the company, the executive of each department met with his/her staff to refine the plan and own it. They challenged themselves and their teams to understand what needed to be adjusted or dropped to achieve the new objectives, and how to work differently and more effectively. Trust and communication are paramount at this stage.

6. Transfer tasks into behaviors. After these group discussions, the executive met with each of his/her direct reports to begin mapping out the work to be done.

7. Measure, refine, and improve. In the short term, i.e., within hours and days, measurements were put into place to monitor actions and help reinforce appropriate statements and behaviors.
• In terms of statements, this means what and how people are solving problems. Goals must be made clear, with specific timelines. Productive conversations are full of solution oriented cross-talk, and must be refined toward optimal solutions.
• In terms of behaviors, be sure to observe how people interact, where they look, where they sit, if they are rolling their eyes, and if they are visually engaged or reserved. Rely on your instincts, and filter them through the prism of solving problems and finding solutions, not politically or socially correct norms. Change can be difficult for people to accept, which is why facilitation and refinement of the goals are mandatory. People must have a sense of control over their lives, or they will rebel. On the other hand, people will support that which they help create. I’ve found that three days is a suitable time frame for people to come to terms with the goals. If the new direction isn’t being generally accepted within three days, then that resistance must be addressed and worked through quickly. Either you don’t have the trust you thought you had, or you have not properly facilitated the process. If those in the company haven’t fully bought into the plan by this time, and you ignore the situation, people will covertly or even overtly sabotage your efforts.

8. Be consistent. The executive team measured progress during the first week, and then at 30-, 60-, and 90-day intervals thereafter.

9. Meet regularly. Initially, organizational objectives need to be balanced with daily and weekly tasks, or the stress to reduce the daily firefighting will slowly squeeze out everything else. This executive team held weekly meetings and decided that 25 percent of these meetings every other week would be dedicated to monitoring and working toward organizational objectives. The agendas generally addressed problems and successes as well as sharing how to gain buy-in and developing people. We discussed how executives could help one another. I made sure any deviation from the plan or timetable was relentlessly discussed.

10. Stay close. I coached each executive for 10 to 20 minutes each week regarding their professional development as it related to these goals, as well as on individual or group challenges. We created a plan and executed and measured progress weekly.

There should be direct line between organizational objectives, how department goals directly support the organizational objectives, and how individual tasks directly support the department goals. To be successful, all of these must be measured within clearly defined timetables, e.g., “Wednesday at 3 p.m.” not “in a couple of weeks.”

This whole process means nothing if it doesn’t result in improved statements and behaviors. Attention must be given to this process, or you won’t have a strategic plan—you’ll have a strategic illusion, and the chances of reaching your goals will be slim to none.