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.

Operationalizing a strategic plan is a discipline that separates the planners from the doers. Successful organizations create a team that consists of both types of individuals. A team that can take lofty strategic plans and tactically execute them is one to be reckoned with.

A Review of Advanced Strategic Planning: A Model for Church and Ministry Leaders by Aubrey Malphurs

INTRODUCTION

Aubrey Malphurs has been recognized as an expert on leadership issues. He has authored several books on the topic of leadership and is the President of the Malphurs Group, which is a consulting firm. Malphurs has also served as a church pastor and has experience in church planting.

In the introduction of the book, Malphurs presents “the problem” [1], which is that most North American churches are not growing, but rather have either plateaued or they are in a decline. He demonstrates the life-cycle of a church with the “Sigmoid Curve”. The Sigmoid Curve or “S-curve depicts how virtually everything in life begins, grows, plateaus, and then ultimately dies.” This process is also true for churches. They are born, they grow and then reach a plateau, begin to decline and can eventually die. Malphurs states that beginning new S-curves to interrupt this process is the solution to the problem. To begin new S-curves involves the process of strategic planning. Throughout the book, Malphurs uses a sailing analogy to describe and explain the process of strategic planning. The book is divided into three parts. In part one, Malphurs explains how to prepare the boat or in other words how to make preparations for strategic planning. In part two, the process of strategic planning is explained. Malphurs refers to this as setting the course. In part three, the boat is launched and Malphurs discusses implementing the strategic plan.

In the beginning of the book, there is a disclaimer of sorts that should be noted:

The key to strategic planning is strategic leadership. You may develop the finest strategic plan in the history of the church. It may be featured in the major journals on leadership. You might publish it in a book that sells thousands of copies. However, it will not happen without competent, gifted leadership…

PURPOSE

Competent leadership is the key to effective strategic planning. The purpose that I feel that Malphurs intended in this book was to provide a detailed guide for helping leaders develop a personal vision for ministry, develop the mission of their church, discover the core values of the church, and then to develop a strategic plan that accomplishes the mission of the church. By helping leaders through the process outlined in this book, Malphurs also helps them to become more competent leaders.

ACCOMPLISHMENTS

The purpose of the book is accomplished as Malphurs helps the reader connect one chapter to the next by using an analogy of sailing a boat. He states that, “Sailing a boat has much in common with strategic planning.” In this analogy, the church is the ship and the pastor is the ship’s navigator.

The church is a ship that attempts to cross a body of water, destined for some port. Just as the ship encounters numerous navigational hazards along the way (tides, currents, wind, flotsam, low water levels, false buoys, and so on), so a church encounters its own navigational hazards (difficult people, a changing community, lack of leadership, poor congregational mobilization, and so on). Church leaders, like a ship’s navigators, must have a process (compass) to plan strategically (chart a course) to reach the church’s destination (port). Though a limited few can do this intuitively (they are natural born navigators), most cannot. They need training to be navigators.

This book guides leaders through the process of strategic planning from the point of preparing the boat for sailing (learning and understanding the process) to the time of launching the boat (implementing the plan). Malphurs fulfills the purpose of the book by presenting the planning process in an understandable, detailed outline.

STRENGTHS

One of the major strengths of this book is the expertise of the author. Aubrey Malphurs is not only writing from the perspective of a pastor who has implemented a strategic plan for his church, but he writes as a professional consultant with years of experience in helping churches develop a strategic plan for ministry. He serves as the President of The Malphurs Group, a Christian consulting service.

Chapter three is a strength for this book. Malphurs stresses that the leadership needs to call the church to “spiritual renewal and revival” as part of the planning process. “Spiritual formation is foundational to strategic envisioning.”

Spiritual formation connects God with the strategic planning process and then its ministry product or model, and it must undergird the entire process. If you picture strategic planning as a house or building, spiritual formation would be the foundation that supports it. Any planning for the church must begin with and be about the spiritual formation of the church.

Malphurs does not simply state that spiritual formation is important and move on to the next step. He devotes an entire chapter to the process of spiritual formation and provides several biblical references to support each point of the process.

WEAKNESSES

Overall, the book is strong and the purpose intended is accomplished. For that reason, it was difficult to identify any substantial weaknesses but from a personal perspective, I did take exception with one point that Malphurs made regarding why some pastors oppose strategic style thinking. Malphurs stated that the problem could be a personality issue and that some people have a “fear or are suspicious of change.” He further stated that people who have such fear of change usually have the temperaments of “S and C” on the DISC personality profile. One of the main characteristics of these two temperaments is that they are passive and reserved as opposed to active and outgoing. It is true that those with a strong S/C personality type can be resistant to change, however they are also competent, careful, stable, steady, and tend to be specialist. My own DISC personality profile results indicate that I am high in both the S and C temperaments, however I am very much a strategic thinker. Pastors and ministry leaders with this type personality may need time to think the process through but it doesn’t mean that they will not accept the strategic planning process. Malphurs made this comment only as one explanation so it is certainly not a true weakness in the book but just a point of interest for this reader.

INTENDED AUDIENCE

The intended audience is of course those in leadership. The more specific audience is church pastors and ministry leaders. Malphurs states that, “Strategic planning requires a strategic point leader, a lead navigator. Someone has to take charge, to captain the ship.” The book is intended as a guide for the “lead navigator”, which within the church, should be the pastor. The planning process requires a strategic planning team, so those who are part of the process would also be included in the intended audience.

CONCLUSION

The book was enjoyable and informative. Although, the book is written in an easy to read format, it still contained a lot of detail on the topic of strategic planning. There is no doubt that Malphurs is an expert in his field and he shares a vast amount of knowledge throughout the book. Malphurs is professor, a pastor and a consultant so the book is easily used as a textbook, a guide to strategic planning, and reference for any ministry leader’s library.

Worried About Board Buy-In to Your Strategic Plan? Here’s How to Build Engagement From the Start

What a waste to spend all that time on strategic planning to have it sit on the shelf. But careful design to appropriately engage your board members can raise their commitment to the plan’s direction.

Before getting to all the opportunities to engage your board, let’s step back and look at the overall process.

Six essential elements for successful strategic planning

There are many ways to develop your nonprofit’s strategic plan. Your plan might be:

recommended to the board by a strategic planning committee of board and staff (and maybe some outsiders) that meet over an extended period.
largely developed by your staff and presented to the board as a recommendation.
created in one sitting by the board and senior staff.

I’m sure you can add other processes you’ve experienced.

While it’s hard to say there is any right way to do strategic planning, here are a few elements of any process that I’ve learned are essential to its success:

• Personal investment

Back to those plans that sit on the shelf. A big reason for this is the lack of personal investment in the plan. You’ll need to ensure your plan is supported by the leadership team that has to champion it and the people who have to carry it out.

• Data Collection

It’s nearly impossible to be strategic in the absence of data. For example, what is the actual scale of the community need you are trying to address? What is the impact that you are having now in comparison to that need? How are changes in demographics influencing your impact? What do stakeholders think about your organization, your people and your issues? Who else is doing effective work in this area? What is working and what isn’t?

• Predictions

An essential element of strategic thinking is making predictions about the future and then planning for those realities. What might your world look like 10 months, two years, ten years from now? What assumptions do you take for granted that if they were no long true you would see a dramatic impact on your ability to achieve your mission?

• Stakeholder support

Beyond your lunchroom or board room, your plan’s success also depends on getting your constituents, your funders and donors, and your partners to support the direction you are heading.

• Competence

Think of this as the ability to do the job well. Your strategic planning needs to result in good decisions.

• A planning process that adds value

Because of all the time devoted to planning, the process works best when your data gathering, community contacts and deliberation create new knowledge, strengthen relationships and build alignment, even before you get to the completion of the plan.

Board engagement in the planning process, then, should help to advance these essential elements.

Here are places and ways that the board and directors can be engaged in strategic planning.

From the very start

Personal investment starts when your board endorses and sees value in developing a strategic plan. Your full board can and should endorse the process that will be used to develop the plan, regardless if it’s staff led, recommended by a planning committee, outside counsel, or some other way. At the start, your board can help frame the strategic questions it wants answered.

In the data gathering and future predictions stages

While your staff may be the most knowledgeable about your industry, your directors also have knowledge or access to knowledge about your community, about the economy, the political landscape or more. Whether you are developing your initial assessment at the staff level or in a strategic planning team, it is wise to ensure that knowledge is shared with your key decision-makers and other stakeholders (staff too).

When willing, I like to send directors out with a set of strategic questions to interview key stakeholders or other critical informants. I find this process to be very valuable in building personal investment in the plan, in developing stakeholder support, and in creating other value for your organization such as deepening essential relationships and increasing director knowledge.

Visioning

It’s hard to be terribly strategic if you don’t have a good sense of the size and shape of your ultimate goals. Once you have data and predictions in hand, it helps to build ownership by creating a shared story or vision of the community impact you wish to have.

(A caution though about timing of this conversation… don’t let your “big hairy audacious vision” be impaired by financial reality right at the beginning. The reality check will come into play when you develop goals and strategies that both recognize financial limitations but also seek to work around them.)

In middle and end stages of planning

As you move forward, consider how much feedback and involvement from your directors it will take to build strong agreement about your strategic direction. The greater support you have, the more personal investment you will build. If you use a planning committee, it helps to have a variety of perspectives deliberating together.

You may wish to take recommendations back to the board in stages – perhaps buying them into the theory of change and strategies in an interim phase. Or maybe the plan doesn’t really hold together well until you have married your impact and strategies with financial projections and capacity investments.

You may also wish to take your plan to your key stakeholders and community supporters in stages as well – whether through one-on-one meetings or in larger gatherings. This is another place where directors not only can be involved, but their presence helps to build community support, more informed decision-making and higher personal investment in the plan.

Final approval

Need I say more here? No matter the level of involvement, an organization’s strategic plan is ultimately “owned” by the board of directors.

Disseminating and championing

Hopefully you’ve already built a lot of stakeholder support as you’ve moved through the planning process. Regardless, directors should be champions of the plan moving forward.

Monitoring and adjusting plan implementation

More and more boards are aligning their meeting content and even their committees or working groups to ensure a living strategic plan. What progress are you making? Where are the stumbling blocks? Are core assumptions still accurate? If not, how must the strategy be adjusted?

Summary

Your ultimate goal is to embed the disciplines of strategic thinking and planning deeply into your board and organizational culture. Strategic thinking should be something you do every day, not something you only consider every few years.

Whatever approach you use to create your strategic plan, your board and directors need to be sufficiently involved to ensure their understanding, ownership and ability to champion a plan that increases your impact on your community.