Five Ways your Annual Strategic Plan Will Fail Next Year

Written by:
Joel "Thor" Neeb

It’s annual strategic planning season! Across the globe, teams are piling into meeting rooms on their corporate campus or at off-sites to map out their key initiatives for next year.
So, you’ve defined your key objectives for 2018 and built a roadmap for execution. All the pieces are in place to succeed. Congratulations!
Unfortunately, chances are high that you’ll fail. Studies show that businesses only accomplish about 33% of the annual goals they set out to achieve each year.
At Afterburner, we are frequently asked to facilitate strategic planning sessions. After supporting these sessions for 22 years, we are constantly on the lookout for the following five pitfalls for any strategic plan.

These are the top five ways that we’ve seen strategic plans fail:

1. You make the plan too complicated.
Your plan is beautiful. It’s 50 pages long with supporting graphs and diagrams. It considers every possible variable. It’s accompanied by a 100-slide PowerPoint presentation that has the design elements of a Hollywood movie. It’s foolproof, right?
It’s worthless. Your team will not remember the plan 5 minutes after you’ve shared it with them.
We work with the COO of a Fortune 500 tech company who insists that all his team’s presentations are “Sesame Street simple”. This is a man whose entire life has been spent working on the cutting edge of emerging technologies, but he knows that his company will need elementary school simplicity to execute well as a team.
When we build strategic plans with an organization, we ensure that the entire plan is captured in less than ten slides and can be communicated in less than ten minutes. We also insist that the company has no more than three key initiatives at any point in time.

2. You build it on your own (or worse, you have consultants/experts build it for you).
You’ve hired a small army of impeccably dressed consultants armed with the latest knowledge in market trends and freshly-minted MBAs to build your corporate strategy. They work tirelessly for weeks and at the end, they hand over the “white binder” – a top-secret plan for your company to succeed.
The only problem: it’s never going to work.
Plans need to be developed with input from the key stakeholders inside your company. When you invite the functional leaders at your corporation into the strategic planning session, several very important things take place:

  • You build alignment with the middle management team that will actually execute your plan
  • You earn the commitment and accountability of your team members
  • You get insights that only the team members closest to the action, closest to the customer, closest to the problems – can provide

As fighter pilots, when we planned a mission we would always build the plan with the involvement of the key stakeholders and subject matter experts. We didn’t want an echo chamber of just pilots in the room. we would invite the Intelligence team, the refueling aircraft – even the weather forecasters to our planning session.
Inviting all the key stakeholders to your planning session will mean that as the leader you will have to work harder to facilitate a constructive and focused discussion. But it will also mean you’ve earned the alignment, commitment, and insights of the entire team.

3. You don’t communicate the plan again and again. And again.
We worked with a corporate leader who bemoaned his team’s inability to execute a strategic plan. Several weeks into the execution phase and few people even remembered what the key initiatives were.
We asked the leader how many times he had briefed the plan to the team.
“I brought everyone together for an all-hands – all 1000 employees – and briefed it to them at the start of the year.”
So he presented it one time. There was the problem.
At Afterburner, one of the reasons we insist that strategic plans can be presented in less than 10 minutes is that the leaders we work with will need to present them over and over.
How many times is enough? Behavioral scientists have stated that on average human beings need to be told something seven times before they remember it. So instead of being upset that you’ve told them three times already and no one remembers it, think to yourself, “Only four more to go!”
Present the plan to the team again and again. Incorporate the plan into every meeting. Print a poster version of the plan and display it in high traffic areas (like near the bathroom). Over-communicate the plan to ensure everyone hears it and acts on it.

4. You don’t turn the plan into disciplined execution quickly.
Everyone is excited and committed to the plan you built together. “This could actually work!” they say.
So why has so little been accomplished by the end of the first quarter?
We teach that there are two key ingredients to success: inspired alignment and disciplined execution. Both are required elements of any successful team. The only problem is, the activities that lead to alignment and execution are very different.
Inspired alignment is like the “fuel” needed for the mission execution phase, and it’s a perishable resource. Every day that goes by that you haven’t started accountable execution towards your plan means less alignment to the plan’s steps from your team members. The plan becomes one more “great idea” that never happened, and people go back to working on things by themselves.
Connect the inspired alignment to disciplined execution immediately. Create an execution rhythm by establishing short update sessions on the same day and time each week and insist every key stakeholder attend those meetings.

5. You don’t obsessively, aggressively, maniacally control the noise of “everything else”.
We were approached by an individual during the summer of 2016 whose team had performed poorly, and his job was on the line. He was the sales leader for a billion-dollar product vertical and they had missed their numbers in the first two quarters of 2016.
We worked closely with his team to build a strategic plan for success. By year-end, they were hitting their numbers and have continued to blow out the sales forecasts each quarter since. They’re also a big reason why this tech company’s stock has doubled in the past year.
So, what was the secret to his success?
He was able to master the art of saying “No”.
A few weeks into the execution phase of his plan, people began to approach him and say, “Boss, I know we’re working on those three top initiatives you outlined, but surely you still want me to complete work on (fill in the blank).” His answer was the same every time:
“No. Work only on the three key initiatives.”
This drove his team members crazy. They had already put work into these projects. They were close to being done! Sometimes these other projects were even ones that the boss had originally asked for.
But the leader was able to avoid the “sunk cost fallacy” and stopped work on anything that wasn’t directly related to the critical few initiatives.
In the cockpit of my fighter plane, there were more than 350 instruments and dials. They were all useful for different phases of flight. I could only pay attention to about three different instruments at a time. When I taught new pilots how to fly, I would dictate what instruments to look at. It was called an “instrument crosscheck”.
Your team members need a similar crosscheck to succeed in their roles. Don’t allow the noise of “everything else” to creep back into their work lives.

Make Your Strategic Business Plan the Right Way

Those are the top five ways we’ve seen great strategic plans crash and burn. You spent valuable time and resources to develop the plan – now take the steps to ensure that it stays on track! Avoid the pitfalls outlined above and help your team succeed in 2018.

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