gears_3Have you ever noticed the similarity between strategic planning and a dental visit?

Both fall into the category of “must do” (or for some – “should do”), and both activities are strongly disliked due to a very normal human instinct called pain avoidance. For many leaders, planning means pain – which is unfortunate given the very high return on investment that is possible when planning is done well. Why is the experience painful? (A question we like to ask new clients about their previous strategic planning experiences.) “Boring”, “Uncomfortable drawn out process”, and (the real kicker) “No impact/outcomes as a result of two days in a boardroom.”

Is it any wonder that busy leaders and executives avoid an activity that leads to no outcomes after two days trapped in a boardroom?  The biggest challenge our clients share with us about their previous planning processes is the enormous gap between the plan on paper and the action required to make the plan “real.”   Recent PMI research (Talent Management – Powering Strategic Initiatives in the PMO) confirms that 88% of executive leaders consider strategy implementation important, yet 61% say their organization are struggling to bridge the gap between strategy formulation and day-to-day implementation.  This is, without question, the Grand Canyon of business gaps.

A few ideas on how to bridge that gap, based on our work with clients across multiple industries and varying size/maturity:

Address the “discomfort” issue head on.  Without absolute engagement from your leadership team at the outset, the plan stands virtually no chance of becoming reality in the weeks/months ahead.  Discuss the fact that a really good strategic plan requires some suspended disbelief (envisioning a future that is fundamentally different from today), and a high degree of comfort with the “grey” area of business.  There are no right and wrong (black or white) answers in planning – at least – no recognizable correct and incorrect planning options.  Share this insight from Roger Martin (Business write/academic) who sums up the issue extremely well: “The problem with smart people is that they are used to seeking and finding the right answer; unfortunately, in strategy there is no single right answer to find. Strategy requires making choices about an uncertain future. It is not possible, no matter how much of the ocean you boil, to discover the one right answer. There isn’t one. “

Link every strategy with an action.  Ensure you have someone leading the discussion who will push you and your team towards action.  For example, you decide as a team you would like to break into a new market, or develop a new service offering.  A good strategic planning facilitator will work with you to explore “what does that mean”.  What can we reasonably do in the next 3 months, 6 months, 12 months that helps us make progress towards that goal, and is realistic given our current operating environment? What needs to happen (next) to start to see that goal realized, and who is responsible for taking those first steps?

Understand the difference between plan and planning. If you have been in business for any period of time, you have likely experienced the “beautiful” large strategic plan document, full of graphics and forecasts and visionary statements about what the future will hold, which is then shelved (literally and figuratively) as everyone returns to the daily whirlwind for which they are responsible.  The record of the discussion amongst your leadership team is “the plan”, and it can take many forms. (Believe me – the format does not warrant the level of attention accorded it.)  The missing piece for many teams is the “planning” – the process by which you regularly revisit the goals, assess progress, adjust and move forward.  This is what is meant by an evergreen planning process, which does not require another two days in the boardroom – a one hour monthly or three hour quarterly check-in will keep your plan fresh and more importantly your team engaged in planning.