By Lori McNeill
I recently worked with a client regarding their strategy for the upcoming year. I started by asking them to share their current year’s strategy, goals and outcomes. We reviewed the data and although there had been progress, they had faced challenges along the way and struggled to accomplish all that they originally set out to do. After a bit of probing, we were able to identify what went wrong in the process, and discovered a number of mistakes that could have been avoided. The CEO and executive team members said that if they would have utilized the six-step framework outlined below, they would have progressed even further and could have avoided some of those mistakes that cost them time, money and wasted resources.
The ability to develop a winning strategy is a critical success factor for all organizations. First, let’s define what a “winning” strategy is and is not. Strategy does not equal goals. It is very important to make that distinction. Goals are what a leader wants to achieve and strategy is how the leader plans to accomplish those goals.
For the sake of simplicity, consider using a six-step framework:
Step 1 – Align with leaders in the organization regarding the goals. Have you ever found a solution to a problem only to discover it was not a problem you should have been trying to solve in the first place? That is basically what happens when a leader attempts to create a strategy without first seeking alignment. It is imperative for leaders to be aligned on the goals of the organization before a strategy can be created. Leaders should be in agreement on what “good” looks like so everyone is crystal clear on what needs to be achieved before emphasis can be placed on how to go about it.
Step 2 – Define a plan that is Realistic. Leaders often make the mistake of creating a strategy that is so overwhelming that no one believes it is possible to execute, so they don’t even attempt to implement it. If, by chance, others in the organization start to carry out the strategic plan, they may only do so in a half-hearted attempt to check a box or satisfy their manager. Looking at what has been attempted in the past is a good indicator of how to develop a plan that sets the team up for success.
Step 3 – Establish milestones. This is critical so that early wins will build momentum. It gives those implementing the strategy a sense of accomplishment. Plus leaders throughout the organization will be able to better track progress. If milestones are not achieved, it may be an indication that strategy needs to be adjusted in regards to timelines or obstacles that have surfaced during implementation.
Step 4 – Be willing to make adjustments along the way. As mentioned in the previous step, execution may not go as planned. There could be changes in the marketplace, a shift in customer demands, economic upturns or downturns, budget constraints, technological advances or limitations, breakthroughs or breakdowns, and any number of factors. As often as possible, monitor for unexpected circumstances that arise and identify a core team that can make adjustments to the strategy when necessary. A good leader develops a good strategy, but a great leader is agile and wise enough to know when strategy needs to be modified.
Step 5 – Explain the “why” behind decisions that were made regarding the strategy. Develop a communication plan with clear messaging to all stakeholders. Nothing is more frustrating to employees than not understanding why decisions are made. If they do know the “why”, they are much more likely to get onboard with the strategy instead of rebelling and choosing not to go along with the plan. By taking the time to consider all stakeholders who will be impacted by the strategy and developing a clear communication plan, there will be less resistance and a quicker uptake for the execution.
Step 6 – Last but not least, assign owners of the strategy. No work will be done and no progress will be made if there is not clear accountability. How many times have you found yourself sitting in a meeting where good ideas are tossed about, plans are made, and everyone walks away happy? Then weeks go by, perhaps even months, and no progress is made. The number one reason that strategy fails is lack of accountability. Without clear assignments, there is a strong possibility that false assumptions will be made regarding tasks. You may find that everyone is working on just one component of the strategy while other components of the strategy are completely overlooked. By assigning ownership, a leader will ensure that time, money and efforts are maximized.
Lee Bolman, a leading author, scholar and speaker on strategy, probably summed it up best when he said, “A vision without a strategy remains an illusion.”