That was the response from a seat mate on a plane who asked what kind of work I was doing and I said, “strategic planning.” After his pithy “three words” response he went on to say, “The plan is worthless before it hits the paper.”
Happily, I don’t think this gentleman speaks for 21st century kick-butt business leaders. In fact those people are making a big deal out of strategic planning. More and more companies are putting resources to the challenge of including employees, partners, and customers in their strategic planning processes. Ron, a snappy executive leading a public agency said, “I want an ongoing process that involves everyone, builds momentum, and brings results.” Ron is definitely on the right track; but it is one thing to want something and another thing to actually make it happen.
This is not rocket science… It’s waaaay worse than rocket science. It seems to me there must be magic or voodoo involved when it actually works. But I have seen it work. And it is always amazing.
The basic idea is to:
- Establish an ongoing conversation with employees, partners, and customers
- That focuses on issues of strategic relevance, prioritization, innovation, and transformation
- That works year after year creating clear expectations for participation and accountability for results
- That actually yields “catalytic” results that could not happen with traditional “top down” planning models
- That results in smarter decisions at every level of the organization—and more loyalty all around
How hard can that be? I offer the following set of ten phases or stages for anyone who has the courage to actually venture down the path.
Phase One: You are already doomed if you expect this effort to solve near term problems of any kind. It will not help with your motivation issues, cost saving efforts, or marketing innovations. In fact this effort will cause more problems than you already have—in the short term—and by short term I mean the next two or three years.
Phase Two: You will meet a whole new set of naysayers. You already know about the jerk in accounting, the crazed compliance officer, the safety-geek, and the colossal whiner in HR. But who knew there were a dozen more characters out there that are ready to challenge everything you suggest. It would be great if they just came up and talked to you. But they won’t. They will snipe, eye-roll, foot-drag and resist at every turn. And they will enlist others.
Phase Three: The process will not yield clarity. Sorry. No chance. When you go down this road you will realize just how deeply screwed up your organization really is. People will feel that (a) this is never going to work so (b) I am only going to have one chance to get my input on the table so (c) I am going to fight like a rabid dog for my department and my point of view, damn the torpedoes and to hell with everyone else. The result will be an indecipherable patchwork of needs, complaints, and left-field suggestions. Great. Super.
Phase Four: The majority of people in the organization will go silent. They were yammering away three weeks ago, but now that you have formally asked for their input and ideas, they clam up. It is the organizational equivalent of, “Oh, were you talking to me?” They will sit with arms folded and wait you out. They have seen this kind of thing before. They know nature abhors a vacuum. Soon enough, someone on the leadership team will crack and start jabbering away—just to fill the silence.
Phase Five: Nobody knows what strategy is or what a plan should look like. Even those who are trying to help will tilt their head and look quizzically at you—like a Labrador watching a Rumba. It’s an altitude thing; some strategic suggestions are so high level that they offer no support; “We will win by having more points than the other team.” Or so tactical as to be disconnected; “Doing squats will make our legs stronger.”
Phase Six: You must use the whole calendar. Every month there must be some tangible interaction that (ideally) builds to a more refined conversation. But that will not just happen; you must set the agenda, summarize progress to date; call out themes; ask lots of questions; prove you heard the answers; set out small challenges; celebrate victories; learn from failures; and basically do all the work yourself. But you can’t act like you’re doing the work yourself. In fact you have to give the credit to everyone else all along the way.
Phase Seven: Be ready when it starts working. It is like that magic moment when you see sparks jump to flames. You need to be ready for a surprising subset of employees (you would not have predicted them) who will want to jump on board—usually at the same time. Last week, nobody cared…now it is cool for some reason. It is a tipping point thing. It is the story of the 100th monkey (Google it if you don’t know it.) Just like you weren’t pissed when the wheels were falling off, you can’t be exuberant, satisfied, smug, or relaxed when the organizational fly-wheel gains momentum. You must be calm and ready for the organization to begin working at a higher level.
Phase Eight: Take it easy buckaroo. Never ever add new ideas or big initiatives just because you are drunk with power with your newfound success. It is like tossing a huge wet log on your sputtering flame. Let the organization consume 25 smaller challenges. Make the most of everything in circles of influence and change—and keep the circles small. This is when the organization will first “see itself” and people will learn what success looks like. Like that moment when you catch a glimpse of yourself in a mirror and you go “Wow, I really did lose ten pounds!” (That hasn’t happened to me…but I have heard other people say that.) Don’t worry, they will connect the dots. This will bring momentum, and momentum brings appetite.
Phase Nine: Reinforce formal and informal communication networks with praise, resources, coaching, bonuses, cool technology, education, and visibility. These social networks within your company—ARE your company. It is called CCO theory—Communication Constituted Organizations. The communication networks will self-police, manage scarce resources, innovate instinctively, and generally make impossible things seem very easy. They will develop and reinforce the new language, narratives, and expectations required to be successful.
Phase Ten: Be ready to start again with the basics. I call it Fiscal Amnesia. When we go from one budget year to the next, we lose our minds. Yup; you have to start all over again…with Phase One. You are now staring down a whole new batch of problems (but you are certain you see some of the old classics in the basket too). I know you think you’re smarter, that your people can soldier on, advancing continuously. Sorry to burst your bubble. You will be three years into this process and you can be sure some jackass will say, “Why are we doing this?” “This is a waste of time.” “All we really need to do is fix (fill in the department name) and we would be better off.” The difference is that now you know the organization will fall into shape much more quickly and go after bigger challenges.
So there you have it
It is like a new strategic circle of life thing. It is an arduous journey set upon by executives with the spirit of Don Quixote, the humility of an Indian Sadhu, the tenacity of a cold-call sales person, and the creativity of a Middle Eastern diplomat. Most important though, is the unshakeable belief that people really can achieve amazing things when we all see the same problems and we are all part of the solution.