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.

Benefits of Strategic Planning (Part 5 of 5) – Increased Commitment and Sense of Security

To this point in the “Benefits of Strategic Planning” series I have talked about some of the chief organization-related benefits: more effective control over organizational change, more effective management of progress toward goals, increased focus on the critical issues, and improvement of internal processes. In this final post, I will discuss some of the major people-related benefits. In the previous post, I described how a strategic plan can Improve Internal Processes directly if the planners devote energy to honestly evaluating the organizational culture, and then develop strategies to remediate problems and maintain strengths. In other words, developing Actions to undertake around the identified issues. In this post, we concentrate on the people-related benefits of the planning process itself.

The people who are parties to an organization can all benefit from strategic planning in tangible ways. This includes those who are directly involved such as leaders and employees, and those who are indirectly involved such as customers and clients, and partners, suppliers, investors, and funders. Discussing the people-related benefits of the planning process is rather tricky because many of the benefits are not orthogonal. In practice, this is not a bad thing because advantages in one area will typically mean advantages in other areas. But be aware that the converse is also true: if there are problems in one of these areas, there are likely problems in most of them. In the interests of article length, I will confine this discussion to benefits to employees and clients because in many ways these are the most important parties.

Employee Involvement

Among the major people-related benefits of a strategic plan is that it can increase morale and commitment in the people working in the organization in several ways: increased sense of ownership, commitment, and satisfaction; security and purpose; and trust. One of the primary ways this is accomplished is through involving employees in the strategic planning process. Organizational leaders often choose to involve multiple layers of the organizational hierarchy in the strategic planning process. This could mean giving some carefully chosen employees positions on the Strategic Planning Committee that guides the entire process. It could also mean holding brainstorming sessions or retreats, with or without consultant facilitation, on specific aspects of the plan that are meaningful to certain groups, and bringing this data back to the planning table. Or, this could mean gathering feedback or input from critical groups in the form of questionnaires or focus groups at key points in the process. It means involving employees in any way that is appropriate to the organization in question. However, just having a plan is very beneficial as well as it tends to invoke a sense of security.

Ownership, Commitment, and Job Satisfaction

Any time employees must invest some time and energy into the plan means the potential is there to increase employee ownership, commitment, and job satisfaction because it increases their sense of inclusion and personal significance. This, in turn, helps them feel responsible for the future of the organization or at least the plan, thereby increasing their personal investment in the organization. This has organizational benefits as well including decreased turnover and increased level and quality of motivation, initiative, and output. An added benefit to employee involvement is ease of buy-in: employees are much more willing to buy into a plan they had a hand in creating than one that was delivered to them, signed and sealed, after the fact. Moreover, it makes for a more comprehensive plan.

Sense of Security and Purpose

Another related benefit is that, with or without employee involvement, a strategic plan can increase a sense of security for employees and anyone else with an interest in the organization because they know there is a plan. The less ambiguity in times of difficulty or uncertainty (as in a recession), the better. Worry about the future can detract from day-to-day work reducing the organization’s effectiveness. It can also de-motivate people if they believe there is no proactivity about the future. A strategic plan means an organization plans to be around a while. This makes employees feel more confident in the organization and their work shows it.

A strategic plan also gives employees a sense of purpose. One of the major pieces of a strategic planning process is to review the organization’s mission and values to confirm and renew everyone’s understanding of the purpose of the organization – literally, why it exists. This was discussed in detail as an operations-related benefit in the third post in this series. But the benefits are not just operational: a good strategic plan clarifies what’s important and renews interest and passion for the cause, whether it is to make the best parts or provide the best service. People feel energized and interested in their work again. This has positive outcomes for commitment, morale, and work output.

Trust

The last big benefit of strategic planning to employees that will be discussed here is increased trust. Essentially, when employees are involved in a strategic planning process, trust in leaders can be increased because the process becomes transparent to some extent. When employees are not involved in the strategic planning process, they often feel as though management is holding closed door meetings about the future of the company – something employees have a vested interested in and want to know about and contribute to. Employees often want to have their say in the future of the company because in some environments, they are unsure that their voices will be represented in the plan; they do not trust management to be able to plan for the future with their best interests in mind if they do not get a change to communicate them directly. Moreover, a lack of communication with employees around a strategic plan can invoke fear, especially when times are challenging. Thus, a good strategic planning process that involves communication and employee input can increase trust in management.

Customer/Client Involvement

At the other end of the spectrum, and possibly surprising, strategic planning can be an opportunity to involve clients and customers. While it is probably not advisable to include clients on the Strategic Planning Committee, due to the obvious conflict of interest, it can be quite useful to gather client input so the organization can plan to respond in tangible ways to client needs and interests. This has at least two major benefits in for-profit and not-for-profit organizations alike: first, it increases commitment to and trust in the organization not only because of the opportunity for direct involvement, but because clients are made aware that a Strategic Plan is in the make, which increases their sense of security. Second, it improves the ability of the organization to develop products or programs that will actually be used by clients and be maximally useful to them. In essence, it provides the organization with a clear direction in developing client-based programs. Thus, strategic planning increases security for clients and customers and allows them to provide input into product and service development.

A Caveat

Take care when involving employees in strategic planning or any decision-making for that matter. If it is not done well, it can backfire with dire consequences. There is nothing worse for morale or productivity or the success of a strategic plan than obtaining input and then doing nothing with it. It does not mean that you have to do what they suggested, but it does mean you have to address their suggestions or input in some meaningful way. If their suggestions cannot be addressed in the plan, management must meet with employees to carefully talk about why and develop alternatives. Doing nothing is not an option: if management opens up the channels of communication, they have to follow through. True, one of the reasons employees are often not involved in planning is the fear of backlash if employee input cannot be included. And rightfully so. But it can be handled well and this is one of the reasons it’s good to have an external consultant on board.

Series Conclusion

Strategic planning has many operations-related and people-related benefits. These include more effective control over organizational change, more effective management of progress toward goals, increased focus on the critical issues, improvement of internal processes, and increased morale and commitment from employees. If you don’t have a strategic plan, now is the time to commit to developing one. Change is on the horizon and it’s best to plan for it and manage it rather than have it befall your organization. There are many strategic planning resources out there. It’s time to look into them. The benefits outweigh the risks.

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.