The Top Five Reasons Strategic Plans Fail

"Most great plans aren't. They are just nice, high-level ideas."

That's how one of our survey respondents answered our question, "What are the top three obstacles that prevent great plans from reaching effective implementation?" Despite the universal chatter around the need to be "strategic", and the untold hours spent developing strategic plans, it appears that they don't work nearly often enough. And based on the spirited responses we got from the generous folks who answered our survey, it seems that many have been involved in a strategic plan that failed. Of course, we all know it's not YOUR fault!

If it's any consolation, even the big boys can't seem to get it right. Many more than Ted Turner are disappointed in the results from the AOL/Time Warner merger strategy. Arthur Andersen had a great strategy, except for the one little loose thread that allowed the entire company to unravel. And what happened at Kmart, Xerox, and Polaroid? These are organizations that all had the wind at their backs at one time or another, and now you have to wonder if their management could lead a dogsled team to a meatpacking plant.

OK, so no need to affix blame; let's focus on fixing the problem! The purpose of the survey was to identify key contributors to strategy failure so raised awareness could guide our clients to proactively avoid them. What follows is a recap of the responses from the top five categories (in no predictable order, I'll warn you!), along with excerpts of quotations that help clarify the points speedier than a bullet on amphetamines. These five categories reflect the most popular -- although not necessarily the most significant -- responses we received, out of approximately 25 categories. Their pervasiveness certainly warrants our attention. By addressing these five obstacles, you can expect to more successfully implement the plans you devise and participate in, even if a past experience felt more like a do-it-yourself mugging.

Communications

The number two response to our question about strategy failure should be familiar to all: Communications. Since we can't get it right at home -- with one in two U.S. marriages ending in divorce -- what makes us think we're going to get it right at work?

Poor communications seems to take many forms. Apparently, some groups like to develop strategic plans, and then hide them under a rock. But they don't do it on purpose. "The failure to communicate the vision and strategic objectives to stakeholders" may mean that the developers of the strategy aren't getting out enough information for folks to understand what they're supposed to do with it. "New initiatives or objectives are outlined but not communicated throughout the organization as to how the new objectives should look and feel, what steps to take, time-frame, etc." "Poor communications among team members responsible for decisions in implementation. Expectations and opinions are not shared openly, thoroughly, and effectively."

"Every tactical action supporting the strategic objectives needs to be included in an overall communication plan so that the strategy is reinforced." There's an interesting idea: an overall communication plan. Other responses also indicate that lack of communications routinely allows plans to die out after their launch. "No regular internal press to generate momentum." "Lack of better marketing efforts." Apparently all goes quiet, kind of like a mausoleum after the entertainment goes home. This contributor didn't hold anything back: "The communication sucks! Organizations become introverted in their communication strategies, whether the group is a large company or a small team."

Communication is also much more than words and pictures. Communication is also delivered through demonstration. "The management team does not follow the strategy themselves." We all know about the hypocritical "do as I say, not as I do" admonition. What does that scream about the value of the strategy? That behavior will raise eyebrows faster than a cook who won't eat his own cooking!

Leadership

Which brings us to leadership, which was the fifth most popular category. From these responses we can learn that leadership is much like fly-fishing -- when you're up to your waist in it, it's suddenly much harder than it looks! "Most leaders grossly underestimate what it takes to lead effectively." "Failing of leadership starting and ending at the top." "Lack of a true motivating leader." This contributor offered some specificity: "Weak leadership. This results in improper resource allocation, lack of buy-in, poor follow-through, inadequate checks, misaligned goals/ strategies/ actions, inefficient rewards and punishments, cover-ups, etc."

This respondent noted that there was enough blame to go around: "Not a lack of leadership from the main person in charge but from either a lack of ability or the lack of 'willingness' from other personnel who are needed to step up and truly lead the effort to bring the strategies from paper to production." The message here is that we are all called to lead from wherever we are, even if we're not at the top.

Not all management teams are blessed with skilled leaders. "Management team and/or owner not experienced/skilled enough to carry out the strategy." Some have titles associated with leadership, but not the authority: "No assigned champion/true owner of each project who has the authority to implement." I was taught that you must delegate authority at the same time you delegate responsibility. Lastly, we have leaders who are just plain stubborn, kind of like a mule with a good parking space at the mall: "...'rogue' links in the management chain that distort the plan to suit their OWN vision, thus subverting the directive from the top without authorization." Now I'm thinking fly-fishing is actually easier.

No Plan Behind the Idea

The third most popular category is named, "No Plan Behind the Idea," captured in this summary: "Most great plans aren't. They are just nice, high-level ideas." Those of you that have attempted to execute plans that were as thin as the soles on Newman's shoes may easily relate to this: "'Strategic initiative?' No, it wasn't 'strategic' and it wasn't an 'initiative'. Calling something a strategic initiative doesn't make it one."

It seems that many of our strategic planning sessions stop halfway, before there is a plan. "Very little planning, if any, goes into the implementation process." "Undeveloped intentions." Maybe you know some of these people: "Frequently the person with the great idea is not an execution giant." While no one is advocating using masking tape on a paint-by-numbers picture, how about this example of how to do it right: "the Microsoft of today NEVER rushes in ... they wait to see how things shake out, steal some early ideas, perfect them, then smash everybody they can and conquer the world."

Inquiring minds want to know what a strategy document is really for. "A strategy document almost NEVER actually states what is to be done from day to day and a way for employees to track their actual progress. Most strategies stop at the 'conceptual stage' rather than actually give very SPECIFIC tasks to be done." "Concept not cascaded throughout the organization so that individuals know how it applies to them and their job." "Unable to break the project down into doable actions." If all this sounds like a lot of work, perhaps this says it all: "Ideas are easier to talk about than do."

Passive Management

In fourth place is a category I call "Passive Management." This is characterized by assuming that things will run themselves after we get them started, which is about as likely as being hit by lightning while being eaten by a shark. Instead, I suggest that implementing strategic plans is more like keeping plates spinning atop a number of pointed sticks. If we don't put forth a regular effort to keep them spinning, the plates will fall down and the sticks will end up in uncomfortable places. "When the implementation phase begins there is not enough follow-through -- or follow-up for that matter -- from senior management." "Poor and inexperienced management to execute the plan."

Notice the subtle difference here from leadership. While leadership is expected to communicate the vision and support it with demonstrable actions, management is expected to know how to execute the individual tactics. "All talk and no action, failure to assign and hold individuals accountable for delivering on the assignments." "No one takes total charge and follows up when someone doesn't meet commitment dates." "The objective ... is written down on paper ... and nicely filed away." Here is what seems to be missing: "... this is the objective, this is how we're going to get there, here is your part in the plan and you will be held accountable."

Like leadership, management is not easy either: "It takes a special person to be able to define strategies and to plot out and manage others in how to achieve those strategies. Most fail because they assume their team has the wherewithal to pull it off and they therefore do not manage the process." I must say, I was surprised to learn that people want more management -- at least where implementing strategic plans is concerned!

Motivation and Personal Ownership

Our last category is actually our first category. This most popular category of Motivation and Personal Ownership contains responses focused on the question, "What's in it for me?" This is not to imply that we're all a bunch of selfish, greedy, self-serving individuals -- although recent headlines could certainly make that case successfully! -- it's really that people are looking for the meaning in what they do. In other words, they want to show up for more than just a paycheck. People want to build something, make a difference. "Don't understand the purpose, goal is minimized, vision disappears. No enthusiasm to make it happen. The bottom line, how will it affect ME?"

More effort is needed to help people understand how getting behind the company's goals can support their personal goals. "The I/me mentality that is so prevalent today. If it works for me -- it works for me! Let everyone else deal with it." "You must have some kind of desire or necessary will to implement the plan. You must have some kind of image of the outcome." The message here is that you -- personally -- must desire the outcome. Perhaps that lack is what causes, "lack of buy-in from the entire group." "Typically the initiative fails because the people responsible for implementing it are not convinced of its value."

What are the symptoms when there is no motivation/personal ownership? "Employee resistance." "Lack or no sense of urgency." "Inability of individuals to view strategic planning an important and exciting part of their job." "Lack of employees' support." "Lack of better sales efforts." "Lack of initiative at the lower levels of implementation, the 'front lines'." "Lack of ability to arouse enthusiasm." In summary is this prediction: "The project will never succeed if there is no emotion or passion involved."

Conclusion

Pay attention to Motivation and Personal Ownership, Communications, No Plan Behind the Idea, Passive Management, and Leadership, and you'll be ahead of the strategic planning game. These observations and insights can help you improve your success rate with implementing strategic plans, so it doesn't feel like doing the splits over a case of dynamite.

If you have had "great plans" fail -- I've lost personal count! -- take what we have learned here and embrace a new plan for those "high-level ideas." Let's also learn from Napoleon Hill: "The majority of men meet with failure because of their lack of persistence in creating new plans to take the place of those which fail." Braced with this knowledge, you'll do clearly better this time, and without need of bullets or amphetamines!

© 2002 Paul Johnson. All rights reserved.

The survey referenced above was conducted by e-mail between July 15th and August 1, 2002. Ninety-four respondents from a variety of business environments and roles contributed 321 individual responses. Those responses have been categorized and form the basis of our observations and analysis.

Note: This article is available for reprint at no charge. We only ask that you include our copyright notice in your reprint, along with the About the Author (byline) information we provide at the end of the article.

Paul Johnson of Panache and Systems LLC consults and speaks on business strategy for systematically boosting sales performance using Shortcuts to Yes?. Check out more salesforce development tips at http://panache-yes.com/tips.html. Call Paul direct in Atlanta, Georgia, USA at (770) 271-7719.

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