The biggest problem with planning is lack of execution. And many plans are doomed to failure because they define goals without describing the actions needed to achieve them. I see this in plans of all types: Strategic plans, business plans, marketing plans, project plans, capture plans—to name a few.
Why do we divorce goals from actions?
Because goals are relatively easy to define, whereas the associated
actions are often elusive. For example, if you have an underperforming
office, you can easily determine how much its financial contribution
needs to improve. That's the goal.
But what specifically should
be done to accomplish that? Chances are if you knew, the office wouldn't
be in trouble. It's simpler to put in your plan: "Increase 2016 revenue
in the Atlanta office to at least $1.2 million, with a minimum profit
of 7.0%." A statement like that alone constitutes an office or business
line "strategy" in many of the plans I've seen.
We can do better.
Let me offer a few suggestions for making your plans actionable, thus
enabling your firm to achieve more of its goals:
Determine what steps are needed to reach your goals; better still, define the process. Meaningful
business goals require sustained, disciplined effort. Yet many plans
only define the initial steps. That may be necessary because subsequent
steps cannot be determined until the first steps are taken (to gather
more information, for example).
The problem is that without a
long-term process spelled out, efforts often stall after the initial
actions. This is one factor that argues for doing planning in stages
rather than in a single annual event, as is most common. Plans often
lack enough information to be trustworthy or devolve into speculation
about future events or circumstances. Without the structure of an
ongoing process—which hopefully further enlightens and validates the
plan—the effort can stumble to a halt after a few months.
best to outline a process that extends over time until the
accomplishment of your goal. You may not be able to define longer-range
actions, but you can at least plan how you will determine them and when.
Identify obstacles and how you will overcome them. I've coined the terms "elevators" and "gravitators" to point out the importance of realizing both (1) what you need to do and (2) why you might not do it.
The concept comes from the Apollo spaceship that consumed 99% of its
fuel escaping the earth's gravity and only 1% to complete the remaining
4.5-million-mile journey. Similarly, in reaching business goals, we
usually expend most of our energy just trying to overcome the inertia of
the status quo.
Yet plans often ignore the gravitators—factors
that work against goal achievement—and focus on elevators, those
positive steps that move you in the desired direction. You should avoid
defining actions without the context of those inevitable obstacles that
will need to be overcome, an all-too-common occurrence in planning.
Instead, choose actions that both elevate your progress toward goals and
mitigate the pull of "gravity" (the appeal of old, familiar ways of
Define intermediate milestones on the way to your targeted goals. Momentum
is a powerful motivational force that catapults sports teams to
victories and businesses to successful accomplishment. Intermediate
milestones enable you to build momentum over time by celebrating small
wins on the path to bigger ones. Indeed, John Kotter's seminal research
into successful organizational change strategies found that generating
opportunities for such short-term wins is critical.
milestones should be specific and measurable, so that reaching them is
unambiguous and progress toward them can readily be monitored. They
should be timed such that they demand significant effort, yet are not so
far apart that people lose focus and commitment—three to six months
seems appropriate. But progress should be measured every month when
possible, with a more in-depth reassessment and readjustment perhaps
Remember that you must actively lead the change process. This
is probably the most common oversight in plan implementation. If your
goals are substantial, people will need to change what they're doing.
And such change does not come naturally or easily. In fact, resistance
to change is almost always your biggest challenge in executing your
Don't confuse material changes (in strategy, systems, policies, practices, etc.) with the human transition
that is always the hardest part of organizational change. Your plan
should define the actions you will take to facilitate behavior change.
Training alone will rarely get the job done. Nor will a management
dictate. Define your change process as part of the implementation
process—not just what people need to do, but how you're going to get
them to do it. (For more on this, see my series on change, starting with
Carefully allocate the necessary time and resources.
Plan implementation usually requires a significant investment of time
and money. Yet plans rarely explain where this is coming from—especially
with regards to time. In all likelihood, the people assigned
responsibility for executing the plan don't have spare time waiting to
be committed to this. One big reason why plans fail is the failure to
budget time to work on them.
This involves not only defining
actions, but estimating how much time those actions will require. Then
you should allocate time specifically for the assigned individuals to
complete their actions. To do this, you're probably going to need to
readjust time commitments to other activities. I typically press my
clients to answer these questions: "If the assignment will require x
hours for this person, where do those hours come from? What is the
individual going to give up or delay to create that capacity?
you manage a client project without budgeting time? Of course not. Then
why would you approach working on crucial corporate goals and
initiatives without the same discipline?
Goal setting is a vital
part of any planning, but the effort shouldn't stop there. You need to
define specifically how you will achieve your goals. Consider the above
steps to ensure your future plans describe the necessary actions in
appropriate detail. For the plans you already have in place, let me
encourage you to revisit them to review their implementability. Do your
goals have a clear plan of action? If not, filling that void should be
the next step in your implementation process.