Achieving Business Excellence with John Spence

Strategic Execution Planning – the key to your success!

I was recently invited to return to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business for the fourth year in a row to teach a special class on strategic planning for the Securities Industry Institute. I called my contact a few months before the session to ask if it was possible to shift the class more from “strategic planning” to “strategic thinking” this year, but was surprised to find out that 98 executives had already signed up for the class based on the catalog description of it as “a solid look at how to write an effective strategic plan.” So, I decided to go back and take a hard look at the program and see if I could update it a bit and was surprised to have an epiphany of sorts…

I have long decried that one of the factors that inhibits the ability to write a good strategic plan is the lack of “strategic thinking” that typically goes into the planning process. If a practitioner is not spending serious time and effort on the thinking part of the equation, there is the possibility they can do the planning part of the process (the methodology, the framework) superbly, only to create a flawed plan because it was based on poor information and ideas. (The old GI = GO… Garbage In = Garbage Out – a computer programming term) Then I realized that there was another major issue that I simply had not been stressing enough: the execution of the plan.

Every year I ask the executives in this class: “What percentage of the time do you think companies that have a solid strategic plan – actually effectively execute that plan?” The answer I typically get is: 10-15% – YIKES! Everybody knows that even a brilliant plan that is poorly executed is almost worthless (actually it is very, very costly!). And there can be no denying that every strategic planner in the world will jump up and down about how important it is to “execute to plan” – but then it struck me – that maybe the reason this number was so incredibly low was that almost no one makes planning for effective execution part of the actual strategic planning process. Ah-ha!

It has been my experience that most organizations spend very little time doing any real strategic thinking before they begin planning… then spend a lot of time, energy and money on an elaborate “planning retreat” that focuses heavily on process… and then walk away from the planning retreat and simply expect that they can pass out the plan and it will be dutifully implemented by their people. I say NO, not unless just as much energy, time and effort goes into creating a system and a process for ensuring effective execution as well. What I am suggesting, and will now add to all of my classes, is that a strategic plan is NOT complete untilyou have also written a clear, specific, measurable and detailed “Strategic Execution Plan.

In an effort to better understand the “process” for being more effective at execution, I sat down and read 22 books on effective execution (4,000+ pages). What I learned is that they all basically said the exact same thing. To successfully execute any significant strategic initiative you need to follow these steps:

1. Figure out what to FOCUS on (and by default – what you must say NO to). Where will you allocate resources? What are your core competencies? Where can you differentiate your products and services for a sustainable competitive advantage? What do you need to stop doing? How exactly will you compete for markets, customers and profit? The answers to these questions are of course… your strategic plan!

2. Communicate the plan and vision to everyone involved – over and over again – in every way possible – in order to gain alignment and commitment. The people involved in executing the plan need to truly understand it and clearly see their role in making it happen.

3. Create systems / processes / procedures to ensure that the plan is executed in an effective manner. Personally I hate having to follow procedures – but I absolutely know they are critical in ensuring that the good ideas in your plan become reality.

4. Give people the training, resources, help and support necessary to follow the systems and processes. Set them up for success. Make it easy for them to win by giving them everything they need to effectively implement the plan. The most important likely being – time!

5. Monitor and track progress. A few keys on this… use as few measures as is necessary – you do not want to add in a bunch of extra paperwork and reporting. Just because something is easy to measure – does not mean you should. Just because something important is very hard to measure – does not mean you can skip it. And lastly, after you have identified the five or six key measures – post them for everyone to see. Make sure everyone knows what the targets are, how they are measured and exactly how well you are doing towards those targets. Transparency is the watchword.

6. Reward successes lavishly – deal decisively with mediocrity.

If you follow these steps with great discipline, you should be able to see quite startling positive results. And interestingly enough, when I put this list up in one of my classes and ask the participants if they honestly follow a process similar to this to make sure they are executing successfully – almost no one says they are. Another ah-ha!

So, I now see planning as a three part process: Strategic Thinking + Strategic Planning + Execution Planning. You can be incredibly innovative and have stunning ideas that you run through a wonderful planning process, but without the detailed and specific systems in place to ensure execution, the plan will simply go up on the shelf as credenza-ware, only to be pulled down for next year’s planning retreat – dusted off – and have all the dates pushed out 18 months.  That is no way to use a strategic plan.

Hope this helps – I look forward to your comments – John – John

Comments

  1. John,

    Thanks for your insights and Ah-ha’s. You did a wonderful job consolidating a ton of information into digestable simplicity. I appreciate you sharing your gifts with me.
    Live on purpose!

    John

  2. Mickey says:

    As the general manager of a small company with 35 employees, I used to hate it when we had our annual executive strategic planning retreats because you knew that no matter what…it wasn’t going to happen. There was very little follow-up or follow-through. We hammered out great ideas only to go back to what we always did. And the reason was/is exactly what you are talking about here John; No Strategic Execution Plan!

    As always, great advice John.

    Thanks,

    Mick

  3. John,

    Great post! Your steps are almost exactly what our team has found to be true in our 10 years of doing trainings on (and researching) strategic plan execution. As you know, we have also found (when trying to train teams in how to actually get better at these steps over the long haul) that the most successful way to promote strategic plan execution is to provide teams with assessments, trainings, and tracking tools that allow them to see their strategies through to completion – or to know exactly why the plan has not been executed (in order to plan for better success in the future).

    That being said, I thought it might be helpful to post a link for folks interested in an automated system of developing and facilitating a strategy execution plan that systematically addresses all of the points you made above: http://www.excellenceuniversity.net/online/ebss_information.php.

    Hope this link facilitates a good conversation on this critical (and often not very well-addressed) topic – bravo!

  4. Theres not many times where I agree with a post 100% but this is one of those times where I do. You are absolutley correct. Strategic Thinking + Strategic Planning + Execution Planning all go hand in hand.

    Just think about the effects on your planning strategy if you erased one of those processes from the loop. if you think but dont plan you execution will suck. if you think and plan but dont plan to execute then you might as well forget about it.

    people must realize that in order to be extremely successful you must try to make everything as easy as possible. In order to do this, strategically planning, thinking and execution are good ways to work out most– not all roadbumps that you might encounter in the future.
    surethere will be obstacles that you failed to think about but as long as you hve a plan to execute you should stay on the right track and find success sooner or later. Richard Jackson VictoryBlogger

  5. Richard — great comments — so glad you found value in the post — I appreciate your participation!

  6. John,

    A great article! I and my fellow StrategyDriven (www.strategydriven.com) contributors believe that a strategic plan unexecuted or executed ineffectively is of little value to an organization.

    The StrategyDriven website, therefore, is dedicated to providing executives and managers with the planning and execution tools needed to create greater organizational alignment and accountability for the achievement of superior results.

    Our contributors believe creation of a clear, forward-looking strategy, translatable to the day-to-day activities of all organization members, is critical to realizing success in today’s fast paced market environment. Not only does a compelling, well executed strategy align individuals to a common purpose, it ensures that purpose best serves the company’s mission.

    On the StrategyDriven website, visitors will find discussion forums related to the programs and activities necessary to create and pursue their organization’s vision of success. Complementing these resources is the StrategyDriven Podcast; discussing in rich, example-filled detail the various programs and activities described on the website.

    Registered Members also receive access to members only topic categories, whitepapers, and models. These products provide a more indepth look at the topics described within the discussion forums; placing specific focus on the subset of programs and activities directed at shaping the organization’s behavior toward the continuous pursuit of excellence.

    I hope you and your readers will consider visiting the StrategyDriven website at http://www.StrategyDriven.com soon!

    All the Best,
    Nathan Ives
    StrategyDriven Principal Contributor and
    co-Host, StrategyDriven Podcast

  7. It is very interesting that strategic planning that has been such an effective management tool for a number of decades is still in the development process. The Bain & Co. annual Management Tools survey have shown that strategic planning has been the #1 tool and has the highest satisfaction rate for over a decade, but (and I agree with you) that much is still required to make it truly effective.

    We find that a significant challenge is to motivate strategic thinking at a planning session as many of the executives easily lapse into operational thinking and issues. Definitely an exciting challenge to keep many out of the proverbial weeds.

    After an number of years, we have finally developed a tool to help with implementation, goal tracking/measurement and cascading. After the extensive effort needed to develop the appropriate execution tool, we have a better understanding why so many strategic plans end up in a binder on the executive’s book shelf. Check out the execution module at http://www.mystrategicplan.com it could prove very helpful.

    Keep up the stimulating thoughts, John.

  8. Jim Trunick says:

    In a small company if things aren’t going well with the plan, you can blame your planning skills or you can blame your execution skills. Even question your hiring skills – wrong persons in the wrong seats? However, the consistency is it’s you .

    And in a large company – well welcome to politics and finger pointing. The strategic planning team, a solely dedicated area, is usually not the execution team. Hence, the war begins. The strategic teams are planning for a different audience – senior management. The sales team is planning for a different audience of customers and sales people.

    John the simplicity of your comments is clear and accurate, and involves a huge skill around team building. I think many of us read these leadership articles and immediately relate it to ourselves and our actions. As we can begin to bring your message into ..”what does all this mean for different fuctioning areas”, I think the better chance we’ll have to get it right and improve outcomes. All comes back to trusting communications doesn’t it.

  9. Jim == great comments — thanks so much for joining in the conversation – your contribution is valuable.

  10. Folks — I went to the two website listed above…

    http://www.StrategyDriven.com

    http://www.mystrategicplan.com

    Both are superb — some great resources there — definately worth taking a few minutes to check them out! Also — you’ll want to run by:

    http://www.excellenceuniversity.net/online/ebss_information.php.

    More great ideas there too!

  11. John,

    great post. I am just in the middle of a new strategy being implemented in our organization. And what you actually do when executing a new strategy, is try to modify the underlying culture.

    As Edgar Schein said:
    The organization clings to whatever made it a success. The very culture that created the success makes it difficult for members of the organization to perceive changes in the environment that require new responses. Culture becomes a constraint on strategy.

    Communication, training, processes and reward all aim on changing how people behave, changing the culture.

    http://managerstoolbox.blogspot.com/2008/06/link-between-strategy-culture-change.html