How to Know if your Strategic Plan is Execution-Ready
by Tom Wright, on Oct 16, 2019, 8:59:47 AM
We see thousands of strategic plans here at Cascade - from startups right through to Fortune 500 multinationals. And over the years, we've developed a pretty good 'sixth sense' about whether or not a strategic plan is actually going to work when it moves into the execution phase.
In this article, I want to unpick that 'sixth sense' into a series of checks that you can apply to your own strategic plan to ensure that it truly is execution-ready. Note that we're going to focus specifically on the execution-readiness of your strategic plan, rather than of the organization as a whole (which encompasses wider issues - culture, for example). We'll cover that topic in more detail at a later date!
What is an Execution-Ready Strategic Plan?
Let's start off with a quick definition of what we mean by the phrase execution-ready:
An execution-ready strategic plan is one that has been structured and formulated in such a way as to give it the highest possible chance of gaining traction in the organization, thereby increasing its chances of success.
To be more specific, an execution-ready strategic plan should maximize your chances of:
- Gaining buy-in from key stakeholders of your strategy
- Integrating the plan alongside business-as-usual activities
- Securing proper resourcing (capital or human) to deliver the projects within the plan
- Maintaining the credibility of the strategic planning and execution process
Most strategic plans fail not because of the poor decisions made in terms of their content, but rather because they simply don't get engagement from the organization.
The Execution-Ready Checklist
We've got plenty to cover here so let's dive right into the specifics of what to look for in your strategic plan to ensure it's execution-ready.
1. A Logical Structure / Strategy Model
Soooooo many of the plans we see at Cascade are doomed to fail almost from day 1. The single biggest reason is that they don't have a logical or simple enough structure for people to follow. Common issues that we see with the structure of strategic plans include:
- Too many layers
- Complex business jargon
We're going to use Cascade's Strategy Model tool to illustrate these examples. Let's bring this to life by first looking at an example of a poorly structured strategic plan:
As you can see, the above strategy model is not only incredibly complex, but also uses highly confusing jargon that no-one outside the team who made it will ever understand:
What's the difference between a 'Strategic Imperative' and a 'Strategic Goal'?
I work in the marketing team, should we be adding 'Initiatives' or 'Actions'?
I need to add our revenue target into the plan, where does that go?
The moment that people start asking questions like this about the strategy is the moment you've lost their interest in the actual content. Your Strategy Model needs to be clean, simple and scalable. We wrote a whole article about how to choose the right Strategy Model, but as a reminder, here's our suggestion on a good starting point for how to structure your strategic plan:
2. A Sensible Strategic Framework (or none at all)
As a quick recap, when we're talking about strategic frameworks, we're talking about the overlays that you can apply to your strategy to help categorize your activities and work towards a certain set of goals. Popular strategic frameworks include The Balanced Scorecard, McKinsey's Strategic Horizons and the Ansoff Matrix. We've written an entire guide to help you select the right strategic framework here.
Strategic frameworks sit as overlays inside your Strategy Model, and can be useful for adding color to your plan. However you need to be incredibly careful when deciding whether to even use one at all.
Depending on the strategic maturity of your organization, it may be better to avoid using a framework entirely and simply focus on getting your organization comfortable with the concept of goal-setting and other basic principles of effective strategy execution. You can always introduce a strategic framework into your strategy at a later date.
If you do decide to implement a strategic framework, then you need to select one that will:
- Resonate with the majority of people in your organization. For example, introducing a heavily profit-oriented framework like the Balanced Scorecard into a non-profit or government organization is almost certain to fail.
- Be simple enough for people to self-service categorize their goals. People will continue to add goals into your strategy after it's 'launched' - part of that process will involve them categorizing their new goals into your strategic framework. It's therefore imperative that they understand how the framework works.
- Add genuine value to your decision-making. All-too-often, people implement strategic frameworks without having a good idea of why they're doing so. Think ahead to your future strategic decision-making and decide whether or not the framework is actually helping, or just there for the sake of interest.
Once again, don't be afraid to hold back on implementing a strategic framework until you've completed a few cycles of strategic execution.
3. Solid Foundations: Vision & Values
People often dismiss the importance of having a strong vision statement. They see it as more of a fluffy word-crafting exercise than anything that's going to be significant in the strategic planning and execution process. But the reality is that a well-crafted vision statement is a great way to reality-check your goals as you get deeper and deeper into the planning process.
The best vision statements contain:
- An Output. Something specific that your organization brings to the world.
- A Twist. A unique way of delivering that output that makes you special.
- Quantification. A way of scoping your audience to be broad enough to be aspirational, but specific enough to be informative and helpful.
- Relatable Human Elements. Something that people can relate to and picture in relation to their own life / problems.
Having a vision statement that meets those requirements means that you can essentially use your vision statement as a 'sense check' for the focus areas and goals that you create going forward, and ask yourself the question:
Do I feel good that if I deliver everything in my strategic plan, I stand a realistic chance of delivering against my vision?
Similarly, it's crucial that your values are well written and reflect the human values of the most important people in your organization. Asking yourself the question:
Are the contents of my strategic plan in-keeping or in any way contradictory to my values?
Is a great way to help ensure that your strategic plan will resonate with your employees and align well to their own perspective of how to behave.
4. Clear Focus Areas & Objectives
We're big believers in bottom-up planning here at Cascade. That's where you essentially encourage your people to be active participants in the strategic planning process by writing their own goals. However the reality is that the most effective strategic plans provide people with a strong starting point for adding those goals.
Specifically, that means that Focus Areas and Objectives. In other words, you need to make sure that before you ask your people to start contributing their goals to the plan, you've created both of these things (even if you ask people to review / modify them) to at least give people a solid idea of how to structure their goals.
We've found that when you try to make the entire strategic planning process bottom up (i.e. allowing people to effectively write their own Focus Areas and Objectives) you end up either with a protracted process that takes months or even years, or worse, you end up with a disjointed strategic plan that reads more like a laundry-list of everything your people are working on.
An execution-ready strategic plan should ideally have between 3 - 5 well defined Focus Areas (per plan). Further, we'd suggest creating at least few Objectives underneath each of these Focus Areas to get your people started.
5. A Clear Structure for Projects & KPIs
Leading on from item #4 above, it's likely that you'll want your people to add their own 'goals' into your strategic plan rather than adding everything for them. However the word 'goal' is dangerously vague - which is why we suggest setting up a well-defined Strategy Model (see item #1).
Your Strategy Model helps guide your people as to how to structure their 'goals' - and in the suggested version above, this means adding both Projects and KPIs underneath the Objectives that you've already defined.
You should probably go one step further in your structure though, and suggest that for any Projects people add to the strategic plan, they also add in a corresponding series of Tasks to ensure that the Projects are tangible and actionable.
Whereas for KPIs, you should encourage people to divide their KPIs into those which are 'leading' and those which are 'lagging':
A leading KPI indicator is a measurable factor that changes before the company starts to follow a particular pattern or trend. Leading KPIs are used to predict changes in the company, but they are not always accurate. An example of a leading KPI would be:
Increase number of website visitors to 20,000 per week.
A lagging KPI is a measurable fact that records the actual performance of an organization. Such as:
Deliver revenue of $25M.
Having a balance of leading and lagging KPIs underneath each of your Objectives will make it far easier to measure the success of your strategy - both in terms of end-result (lagging KPIs) and as an early warning system for when things aren't quite heading in the right direction (leading KPIs).
6. Appropriate, Realistic Capital Plan (Human & $$$)
Now we get to the nitty-gritty of things. There's nothing more tragic than seeing a confident executive present a new strategic plan only to have everyone in the room shake their head and say "nice plan, but it's never going to happen". Or worse, they smile and nod along then moan about how unrealistic the plan is to their colleagues once they get outside of the room (admit, we've all done it!).
This all comes down to bridging the gap between the vision of your plan and the reality of the organization that you're operating in. And there's actually a lot that you can do to mitigate this problem as part of the strategic planning process.
Specifically, usually 'capital' comes down to one of two things - people or money. There are other resource constraints too, but these two make up the majority of the requirements of most new strategies.
Ensuring proper allocation of human resource
Within the sphere of human capital, there are two sub categories that you also need to consider at an absolute minimum:
Time is often the most cited problem for why a strategy is deemed unrealistic.
I love the plan, there's just no way that I can fit this stuff in alongside my day job!
There are a few steps that you can take to address this issue in your strategic plan:
- Ensure that all Objectives, Projects & KPIs are properly allocated to individuals. Granted this doesn't solve problem, but it does help demonstrate that you've considered the human resourcing element of your strategy.
- Estimate the 'effort' required to deliver each Project (you don't need to do this for Objectives, since they're an 'outcome' rather than work in themselves, nor do you need to do this for KPIs since these are mere measures). You can keep it simple and go with 'high - medium - low' or get granular and actually attempt to put person-hours against each Project.
- Include a mix of change and 'business as usual' in your strategic plan. Now obviously, strategy is all about 'change' rather than capturing 'business as usual' but often there's legitimate overlap between the two. Be sure to include Projects which are already scheduled as part of your strategic plan (as long as they fit against your Objectives - if they don't, that's a different discussion entirely!).
Whilst doing the above won't completely remove the grumbles around the time-investment for the new strategy, they will help put you on a solid foundation to have debates that are based on fact, rather than conjecture.
The second human capital issue that often arises (though less often than time) is around expertise.
I love the plan, but we just don't have the skill sets here to get this stuff done.
This is often a very valid argument and something that many organizations are unrealistic about when transitioning their plan into execution. There are a few things that you can do to mitigate this however:
- Create a 'skills' list and tag up your Projects with the skills that they require to implement. Then do the same with your own people to see where you have matches and gaps.
- Don't be afraid to delay elements of your plan until you've hired to fill any of the skill gaps identified.
- Hire where necessary, but also remember that you can upskill your own people through training courses and coaching.
Being realistic about skill / expertise gaps in your plan will help ensure that your plan retains credibility as it rolls out across your organization.
Ensuring proper allocation of capital
Money talks. And similar to human capital, if you haven't properly planned ahead for the capital requirements of your strategic plan, it's likely to lose steam pretty quickly. It might even be dead-on-arrival if people instantly lose faith in its credibility due to a lack of proper capital resourcing.
The capital intensive part of your strategic plan is usually the Project element. So for each of your Projects, it's important to first assess whether or not you will need a specific amount of additional capital - then consider how much, and whether or not this is something that you can afford.
Next Steps for Getting your Strategic Plan Execution-Ready
So now you know the checklist you need to run through to get your strategic plan into tip-top condition. The question is, how does your current strategy measure up? The good news is, no matter how many gaps you have against our checklist, getting up to speed is actually easier than you think. Be sure to make use of the articles and guides that we've linked in each of the sections above, and if you'd like an expert to perform an audit of your strategic plan's execution-readiness, you can always get in touch with one of our team.