Strategic planning is a process, an outcome, and—in its best form—a roadmap used by stakeholders throughout an organization to move the organization toward higher levels of achievement. Strategic planning is also a much-maligned endeavor, subject to the usual (and frequent) criticisms: too much time, too much money, and too little action.
Having watched more strategic plans than I can count gather proverbial dust, I’d like to reflect for a moment on our experiences at AAL helping organizations create a strategic plan. There are many reasons such plans fail, but the following five challenges are among the most common:
Lack of leadership. If the leaders of the organization, program, or department do not support the plan, it will fail. This point seems obvious, but far too often leaders talk about the importance of the strategic plan as the planning process gets underway, only to show little interest down the line.
I’m thinking of a senior administrator who appeared exactly three times, for about 15 minutes each time, over a period of one year to express to his strategic planning task force how important their work was to the institution. At virtually every other gathering associated with the process, he sent an emissary to convey the importance of the strategic plan. Do you suppose those task force members viewed the process as extremely important?
How do leaders contribute to the success of the plan? They are present and engaged at the right times with the right people. Most important is their ongoing leadership responsibility: they think strategically. Strategic thinking is guided by vision, mission, and values. Strategic thinking and consequent action aligned with a clear vision of the future are an antidote to the inevitable environmental changes that undermine the details of strategic plans. Strategic thinking is ultimately about staying the course over time, in spite of detours caused by unforeseen circumstances.
Lack of consensus. I have heard more than once that the process of strategic planning is what matters, not the product. Of course, the process itself is vital; yet if an organization is serious about implementing the plan, then an excellent product is imperative.
Strategic planning is about consensus building. Done correctly, the process promotes communication, participation, and collaboration. It provides a structured forum for airing conflicts, dealing with the inevitable political struggles, and negotiating the purpose and meaning of an organization and one’s place in it. While a true consensus about all issues among all stakeholders is unrealistic, engaging everyone through interviews, focus groups, surveys, open forums, and the like is essential if leaders expect them to implement the plan.
Such engagement of others requires time. There are no formulas for the right amount of time. Too much and people lose interest or become mired in details; too little, and they feel unheard. Yet the results of this consensus-building process represent the antithesis of the plan developed by committee or the lone administrator behind closed doors.
Too ambitious. Who can predict what will happen when bright, highly motivated, visionary people are charged to participate in strategic planning? One likely outcome is that from fertile minds will grow a garden of luscious ideas. After all, germinating ideas is a core competency of most professionals.
Tending the garden, however, is an altogether different task. It involves additional human and financial resources, more time and effort, and the willingness to get one’s hands dirty by actually doing something with the idea. Overly ambitious plans tend to outstretch resources and become complicated in the implementation phase. They often have too many goals, including some that are simply unfeasible for the organization in a three-to-five-year window.
The problem of too many goals is exacerbated by implementation planning. I have seen strategies and goals deconstructed into literally hundreds of specific objectives. Even if an organization has full-time staff devoted to strategy and planning, such plans become unwieldy, demoralizing, and ultimately unhelpful as an actionable guide.
Failure to integrate the plan into the culture, operations, and budget. Failures often occur because the strategic plan is divorced from the daily life of an organization. Leaders must model the plan, and that includes talking about it—often. Every public venue and most closed venues are opportunities to stress the vision, mission, and values of the organization.
Integration involves implementing specific, measurable objectives at all levels. Tying decision-making and resource allocation to the plan is vital to making it a part of the institution’s daily life. From the departmental to the institutional level, all defining structures of the organization must be informed by the plan, including budgets, recruitment and development, curricula, and so forth. A fully integrated plan moves everything and everyone (well, most everyone—detractors and cynics reside in all organizations) in the same general direction.
Lack of momentum in the short term. The window of strategic plans continues to get smaller. When strategic planning first emerged as an organizational expectation, a plan spanning 10 years or more was not uncommon. Today, we typically advise our clients to consider a three-to-five-year window.
Even with a shorter time frame, an annual (or sometimes biennial, depending on the environment), systematic assessment of the plan is necessary for course corrections. The planning process itself should create momentum, but as noted above, if the process takes too long, then those involved begin to lose their enthusiasm. Thus the timeline is important; staying with an aggressive timeline sends the message that the planning is a serious endeavor.
Ideally, during the planning process itself, an organization will discover areas for growth and make important changes. To ensure that the strategic plan does not fall stillborn from the printer, institutions should act as quickly as possible. This means identifying those steps that can be taken in the short term and moving forward to implement them. Equally important is making sure that stakeholders know the institution has moved deliberately and decisively to act on the plan. Thus leaders must communicate their actions often and through a variety of media. Momentum in the short term conveys the message that the planning process was a serious undertaking and that the resulting strategic plan is a living document.
Strategic plans need not gather dust on a shelf. They can and should be living documents that guide an organization on a daily basis. In today’s rapidly changing and unpredictable environment, a practicable strategy is more important than ever. Organizations that meet the challenges above have much better outcomes from their strategic plan.
In the end, of the challenges listed above, the first is the greatest: the plan will succeed or fail on the strategic thinking and acting of its leaders.
N. Karl Haden, Ph.D.
President of AAL & co-author of The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders and 31 Days with the Virtues