Half-Life of a Strategic Plan

May 24, 2013

Half life of a strategic plan

A dear friend of mine came over a few months ago for a glass of wine and asked me, “What’s the half-life of a strategic plan?” She’d just completed one with her team. Everyone voted to implement it immediately, and yet one executive began to stray from it within a couple of days!

“Half-life” brought me back to physics class and studying the periodic table. My recollection was that half-life had something to do with how many years it takes for a radioactive element to become inert. That’s true, I learned (again), but half-life is also more generally “the time required for a quantity to fall to half its value as measured at the beginning of the time period.”

Why is it that strategic plans start to lose their value so quickly? And what can be done about it? How can leaders boost the half-life of their strategic plans?

The answers to these questions lie here:

  1. Organizational Habits
  2. Leadership Styles
  3. Quality of the Planning Process
  4. Trade-offs & Resources

Organizational Habits

When organizations or departments first begin to design, build, and implement strategic plans, they often struggle with moving from concept to execution. If they’re confused about roles, rules, or accountability, they’ll simply return to the routes and processes they’ve used in the past. Backsliding can start as early as the planning process, so no wonder my friend witnessed it so soon.

Having an outside facilitator helps…a lot. A skilled facilitator can guide you through the process and ensure that everyone stays between the rails. A common mistake is to hire such a facilitator and then part ways immediately after the planning is finished. Unless the team is extremely disciplined, backsliding is bound to happen. Bad habits are tough to get rid of if there isn’t someone (an objective authority) routinely monitoring progress for the first year or two.

Over coffee recently, another friend shared with me how her company’s strategic plan lasted only a month. The organization did not have the facilitator follow the process through after the plan was completed, largely due to cost concerns. Because this was their first time implementing a strategic plan, they would have been better off not even beginning. It is not enough to have the playbook without knowing how to execute the plays. One of the important plays—one that skilled facilitators know and employ—is to communicate the plan at all levels of the organization. The plan must not just be issued, it must be heard and accepted by all stakeholders. Breaking old habits can take time and persistence.

Leadership Styles

The Just Ask Leadership Assessment identifies and explains four leadership styles: Innovator, Director, Judge, and Professor. Innovators are action-oriented and open to new and different perspectives; they’re great with brainstorming, but not so much with execution. These visionaries, who often run entrepreneurial companies, have the most trouble sticking to a plan—even if it was their idea to have a plan in the first place! They feel like all their great ideas are going to be missed out on if the plan takes precedence. What they do not see is the level of chaos that their freelancing creates for their coworkers—especially in larger organizations.

Professors, like Innovators, struggle with planning. Directors and judges, who excel at evaluation and execution, are the leadership styles that work best in this area.

Quality of the Planning Process

The quality of the planning process can dramatically affect the half-life of your strategic plan. Here again, the value of an outside facilitator becomes clear.

1)   The best strategic plans are not steered by any one person. If you are a leader, you have hierarchical power and that will have an undue influence on your team no matter how open you think you are to others’ ideas. An outside facilitator can close you down when they believe you are demonstrating too much influence on the group.

2)   A strategic plan needs to be strategic. Unless you spend your day thinking, writing, and speaking about strategic planning, you may wind up with a plan, but not a strategic one. Each aspect of the plan must fit together as a system–not some disjointed planning concepts.

3)   The planning process should involve all or many of the stakeholders…and do so without abusing their time or effort. Group Mind Express, Turning Technologies, and other technologies allow you to take advantage of the wisdom of the crowd, increase the level of engagement, silence the noisy minority, and reduce the need to sell the plan after it is completed. Because everyone was involved, they understand what trade-offs were considered and how the choices were made. The explanation was the process.

Trade-offs & Resources

A quality plan will provide trade-offs–what you are doing and, as importantly, what you are not doing. It will not leave issues ambiguous. A good strategic plan takes into account that resources are limited and that allocation of those resources is what drives the strategy. When team members go off plan, they are diverting resources that are needed elsewhere. On the other hand, when they adhere to the plan, the organization achieves a competitive advantage in the marketplace. Everyone knows what resources are available and to what end. This knowledge helps everyone understand and respond to the threat of new entries, bargaining power of buyers, bargaining power of suppliers, threat of substitution, and competitive rivalry.

What’s the half-life of your organization’s strategic plan?

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