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It’s Plan AND Execute!

by David Brock on November 12th, 2015

It’s strategic planning season–at least for those companies on a fiscal calendar.

For the past 2-3 months, I’ve been involved in working with a number of clients on their “strategic plans.”  Usually, these are driven by the end of a fiscal year.

People use the annual strategic planning process to drive major changes in what they want to do.  It makes sense, we reset everything to zero at the beginning of the new fiscal year.  It’s usually a great opportunity to look at major shifts in strategy, changes in what the organization is trying to do, and investments that need to be made to support the implementation of the strategy.

Smart leaders use this process as a means to get the organization aligned around the changes they want to drive, the investments that are needed, and so forth.

One of the teams I’ve been working with has seen some opportunities to drive extraordinary growth in a few segments.  There are new programs to be funded and implemented, some restructuring and reorganization, some new skills and capabilities to acquired.  In the end, the changes and investments are not insignificant.

But they did their homework and got the plan and investments approved.

Fast forward to the past week.  I was sitting in a management meeting.  Several of the managers were looking at some new hires, some restructuring of their teams, new programs.  The investments were pretty small–easily managed within the existing budgets.  However, strategically, the changes represented a significant shift in the strategy.  It was almost 180 degrees different from the strategic business plan they had invested a lot of time developing and selling over the prior two months.

Remembering what they done in the strategic business plan, I asked, “How do these changes relate to the plan that you developed just a month or so ago?  It seems to be a tremendous shift from what you wanted to do.  Why are you doing this, what am I missing?”

A few of the managers stared at me.  I felt as though a piece of Kale must have been stuck in my teeth or something was oddly wrong with me.  Somehow, by asking that question, I felt as though I had come from a completely different planet.

Despite their stares, I persisted.  “What you are suggesting seems to be completely opposite of the plan you submitted just about a month ago.  What’s changed?  Why do you want to shift so abruptly?”

While this isn’t exactly the response, basically what I was told, “Well the plan is the plan, but this is real life.  We have to do what works!”

Maybe I’m a little slow, I persisted, “But I don’t understand.  We spent a lot of time thinking about the strategies, the things that needed to be changed, what it took to achieve our goals.  We were really focused on the specific things we need to change and execute to achieve the goals you established.  You went to the top of the business telling them what you wanted to do and committing to the plan.  But now it seems everything has changed, what am I misunderstanding?”

Again, the looks from around the table made me feel as though I came from a different planet.  Somehow, I just didn’t get it.

In reality, the team hadn’t gotten it.  To them planning was just some exercise they went through.  They didn’t understand the purpose of the planning process.  I think most of them though it was just a way to get funding and to get management off their backs.  But somehow, the “plan” had no bearing on what was executed.

It’s not that uncommon.  As a consultant, when I get involved with a company, I tend to look at a couple of things:  1.  What’s your plan?  2:  What are you executing?

From there, you drill down.  Is the plan a good, aggressive but realistic or is it wishful thinking or poorly done?  Have there been substantive shifts in the market, competition, or other things that require changes in the plan?  And there are a few more things.

If the plan seems sound, then you look at execution.  Are they executing the plan?  If not, why not, what does it take to get back on plan?

The rationale is, if the plan is a good, realistic plan, if we are executing it sharply, then we should be achieving our objectives.

But what usually happens is the plan and what is executed have little to do with each other.  Consequently, managers reacting to tactical situations solve those–but adversely impact the organization’s ability to execute the plan, achieving the strategic goals they had put in place.

Replicate that behavior across the organization, pile on year after year of tactical behavior completely disassociated with the plan and strategy—it’s no wonder so many organizations fail to achieve their goals.

Lewis Carroll said, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.”

The purpose of strategies, plans, and planning is to determine where we–as organizations and individuals–want to go and the best paths to get there.  Things change along the way, and we have to continue to adjust, but it’s always in the context of achieving our goals and executing the plan.

Those managers were right in some sense, real life changes things.  But responding to those things, without going back to the plan is a certain course to disaster.

Strategies and plans by themselves are useless.  Execution absent a plan is just activity.  Strategy/Plans coupled with focused execution is what allows us to achieve our goals, grow and improve.  We can’t do one without the other.

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