Strategic planning has grown increasingly sophisticated over the past five decades as a means for defining an organization’s tactical direction and determining how to allocate resources of time and money. In many companies, employee resource group leaders hold their own annual strategic planning sessions to align their efforts to support the business. Despite the time and energy invested, few efforts actually succeed.
In September 2014, Forbes published an article based on a collection of statistics mined from various sources stating that only about 3 percent of companies’ strategic plans succeed. Even a monkey throwing darts can achieve a better accuracy than that — so why do these plans have such a high failure rate?
To answer that question, we should first consider that strategic planning is a vague term that combines two very different activities. According to Henry Mintzberg, one of the most original management thinkers of the 20th century, the term “strategic planning” is an oxymoron. A strategy emerges from reflection on competitive elements, whereas planning results from an analytical exercise that focuses on how to get from one fixed point (where we are) to another (the achievement of the strategic objective), according to Mintzberg. Couple that with the unfortunate fact that we live in a society with a bias for action and the result is predictable: We tend to focus on the execution of our plans without ever taking the time to revisit and reflect on how the elements that went into the emergence of a strategy are evolving.
Here is a quick example of how this myopic approach can lead to the execution of a plan that fails to meet a strategic objective. Let us say you lead a Hispanic employee resource group and you hear about your company’s intentions to expand into Brazil around the same time you are putting together your strategy and plan. You look at your ERG and realize that you have some people who speak Portuguese and some with contacts in that region of the world. You synthesize these components and a strategy emerges that will produce a business revenue impact by leveraging these ERG assets.
Next, you turn your attention to the development of a plan. Your plan includes creating a database of all your Portuguese-speaking members, arranging networking events with local groups, connecting with Brazilian contacts, connecting with certain speakers, exploring outreach to potential client companies and executives in the region, etc. Moving into the execution phase, you spend the rest of the year putting the plan in motion and following up with its successful execution.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to you, the political landscape that generated the strategy shifts, making the Brazil-focused business unattractive and redirecting the company's goals toward Argentina. At the end of the year, you successfully accomplish the execution of your Brazil-based plan, but you fail to meet the strategic objective to support a revenue-driving effort.
So how do you address this potential pitfall and increase your chances to go beyond plan execution success and achieve strategic success? The answer lies in creating and frequently checking yourself against a strategic compass. Below is a quick three-step process to do this.
1. Start by acquiring strategy-relevant sources of business acumen to advance your objectives. First, write down what you hope to achieve and all the factors that generated your strategy. Continuing with the example above, this might include providing support to revenue generation based on the fact that we know the company is pursuing business in Brazil, plus the knowledge that we have many Portuguese speakers and former Brazilian nationals in one of our employee networks. Next, ask yourself what sources you have in the form of people or tools that can keep you abreast of any changes to the described conditions you are counting on to achieve your objective. The more access you have to the evolution of these elements of the big picture context that generated your strategy, the better positioned you will be to synthesize your knowledge and see strategic opportunity shifts.
2. The next step is to schedule regular intervals to invest time into doing some reflective strategic thinking. Plan to go to your sources periodically and check in on any changes in the factors that generated your strategy. Questions you may want to raise can include the following: Are we still pursuing Brazil? Has the makeup of our membership changed? Did we lose our folks that have contacts in Brazil, etc.? Review shifts, new elements and changes in any factors that were part of what you considered in setting your revenue-supporting strategy.
3. Finally, use the gathered information to measure and reflect on where you are relative to your strategy. Perhaps new conditions will result in the emergence of a new strategy, or perhaps you will stick to the old strategy but with a new plan. In the case of our example, this reflection may have pointed to a need for focusing more on a database of Spanish speakers in the employee network and relationships with Argentinean businesses. The bottom line is that the goal in these meetings is to ensure that your ERG continues to be positioned to drive measureable value that aligns with your vision and mission.
A comedian once said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.” In a rapidly shifting world, the conditions that generate the strategies we originally base our plans are constantly evolving. To increase our chances of achieving success, we must do more than have an annual strategic planning session and focus all of our energy during the course of the year on plan execution and follow-up. We also need to take time to build and monitor our strategic compass.