Strategic Planning & Execution – A Real World Example of Lessons Learned

Organizational History Chart
Organizational History Chart

Even the best Strategic Planning methodologies can be at risk of common pitfalls when it comes to execution.   I’ve been involved in both help corporation evaluating methodologies and building out their internal practices over several decades, but this experience was really rich in seeing how they executed their plan.   The University ran a really deep internal strategic planning workshop to chart the course of new an innovative business services in a mission to become more directly involved in the business community.   I was very impressed with the format, methodology and rigor put into a week long process, with follow up on a reoccurring basis over the weeks as execution began. The sessions where very collaborative combining internal faculty & staff, external practitioners, and inviting historic leaders to return to share their insights into the business.  The sessions where well facilitated featuring both prepared materials that where designed for interactive and direct collaboration.   An example of this is the image on the post featuring a historical timeline of the business where historical speakers and team feedback could be recorded as the session was presented.   As the days progressed,  team members and new employees where integrated into the format to both present,  facilitate, and run breakouts creating a deeper vesting into the process.   The days progressed covering the setting of goals & objectives,  exploring new opportunities, and detailing out the investments and impact to the organization to pursue traditional and innovative paths forward.   Each days artifacts, scribe notes, and team voting scores where digitized into the online repositories for continued reference and to historically be made available for future governance points when the need to review the inputs and context into decision making processes.   While the process and methodology where impressive,  many learnings and insights jumped out going through this exercise that I wanted to share.

Best Practices: ( What was done well in this session ) 1. Spend the time doing strategic planning with the entire leadership team ( and even better the entire team at planning points.)   While this is quite an investment the benefits can be extraordinary in terms of the team building,  alignment and the insights the full team can bring into the effort. 2. Invest in covering the history of the organization.   Look at the politics, leaders,  funding,  results and general economic factors that shaped the formation of the business and how those factors are still shaping and / or constraining the business today. 3. Methodology matters.  You have to build the capability to plan effectively.   The process,  artifacts,  facilitation and knowledge management all matter.   The style really effects how well the team collaborates and participates.   It is also important to note that planning and execution never stop.    A formal strategic planning session is just the kickoff to ongoing and continuous planning and adjustment to driving effective execution.   Don’t leave the strategic planning session without an ongoing plan for continuous planning and reflection. 4. Ongoing planning and capability development require metrics and measurements.   Track on how well you plan,  how many iterations it takes to prioritize and build out the execution plans.   How aligned or desperate team voting is during the process, etc.  How many times does the plan pivot throughout the year?  Build trend lines to how well the organization can plan.   Don’t leave the strategic planning session without a capability and metrics plan to further the group’s capability. 5. Build a strong external communication plan to share your strategic plan for the greater organization and include representatives outside the group in the sessions and ongoing methods of managing the execution.   This requires a strategic relationships plan and communication plan across the larger organization and identify key intervention points for senior management to course correct if needed.

Pitfalls & Learnings ( Where execution did not follow the plans )

1. Decision making:   While the methodology and team voting were very strong in the formation of the plan,  the leadership completely failed to ratify decisions and seek alignment for the upper management of the larger organization.    This completely fractured the execution of the plan with team members all heading off in different directions based on what they thought were the agreed directions from the planning sessions.

2. Group dynamics:  After the amazing team building and planning sessions,  the fact that no decisions where made left the team without out shared values around priorities and goals.  The hierarchical structure also prevented any level of empowerment leaving the team without direction or empowerment to move on their own.    This eventually tore the team apart as different groups were moving in separate directions, based on assumptions,  and not supporting each other.  People’s expectations where being violated at a basic understanding level.  This was greatly compounded by failing to have continuous planning sessions where the team could align and readjust plans and commitments.   The team proactively attempted this early on, but the effort was continually confounded by the lack of decision making.  As team dynamics fell apart and friction grew,  the team meetings were abandoned and replaced with 1:1 meetings.  While these had tensions,  they resulted in private conversations and individual plans that continued to draw the team apart and management never reconciled the goals, promises, and agreements they made with individuals.

3. Alignment with upper management:   the team’s leadership failed to execute the communications plans to senior organizational management and with the board.    This left the team greatly exposed and without any air-cover to execute the plan.   While there where routine status meetings,  as execution failed to produce results,  status was white-washed.     Another pitfall was failing to have the metrics in place to trigger an intervention point of senior management and the board to engage directly with the team to see how or why operations were suffering.   Much less senior management never seeing the original plans and metric evolve from the initial session should have been an obvious red flag.    If you truly own developing a strategic plan, you have to also establish the conditions where intervention points are critical and usually in 30 – 90-day increments.  The sooner you can correct the plan or the support needed the better vs. driving the team into the ground with a failing execution.

4. Year Two:   Given such a robust strategic planning process was conducted in the first year it was amazing to see both the complete lack of replacing and then the entire omission of planning at the kick-off of the second year.   The burning red flags of failing to meet metrics,  terrible team dynamics, and lack of decisions would have been time for an intervention and investigation to realign execution to the plan.  By this point, team members are leaving and team moral had plummeted.    If all of these red flags didn’t trigger a response,  then it displays a need for HR to be integrated into strategic planning.   At some point, if none of the conditions of the plan, execution, metrics, reporting, and failing performance reviews should kick HR into action to engage the team in a supporting role.    Rarely is HR been included in the process.   This is a key opportunity to have personnel and talent managers plugged into the goals of the organization but to also provide a fail safe to the many layers of management that can misfire.   Performance reviews should also be a key time when HR checks into the team to see how they would evaluate how well planning and execution are functioning in their departments.  What a critical safety value for the organization and senior leadership to put in place to keep tuned in, especially if they are too busy fight fires to genuinely pay attention themselves.

5.  Leadership & Management:   The road to failure is also paved with good intentions.  This team was filled with good people and good intentions along its entire journey.   Its organizational structure was very hierarchical with a complete lack of management and leadership talent at the top.   This created an enormous communication and visibility barrier to senior management.   When putting a team together,  realize the difference between management and leadership.    Teams require both, but they are very different.   Lacking one or both will clearly doom the effort.   Most important for senior management is to be sure to have a communication plan that encompasses both the leadership and the execution members.   If you are not directly talking with the execution team,   you really do not have complete status – period.

Take Away 1:  The Value of Organizational History – Remember this post began by calling out the act that the strategic planning process began with deeply reviewing organization history.    Now that this team’s management have all been removed and the team is rebooting,  would they revisit their own recent history to glean these lessons learned?   Organizations must be able to embrace their failures and leverage the insights to initiatives that have not succeeded.   As organizations are being required to be more innovative and agile they need to be able to fail faster and then learn from those attempts.   Usually, the insights are critical to the success factors going forward and need to be captured, documented, shared and actually celebrated as effectively maturing the organization.

Take Away 2:  Think beyond managing the planning process to the team planning for the capabilities around metrics, communication, and governance of the execution model the planning really needs.   This is at the hard of enterprise capability building and management.

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