Why Planning Goes Wrong

The biggest reason plan’s fail is that people don’t do the plan. They don’t do it because they have not collectively embraced it, have not structured their work to do it, and are not spending the time and effort to make changes in behavior to do it. This is why all strategic planning consultants and writers will tell you that a plan’s success depends on the unwavering leadership and involvement of the CEO. If that is absent, the change required to bring plans to life will not happen.

A second reason why plans fail is that organizations (i.e. the people within them) fail to make tough decisions during and after the planning process. Strategy is about making choices and decisions in order to succeed. During what I call the “strategic dialog” aspects of planning, we need diverse perspectives at the table, which means people do not always see things the same way or come to the same conclusions about what direction to go in.

Such diversity should create strategic options that the organization can look at and then make decisions about. The very nature of dialog and of identifying options is such that not everyone’s individual perspective will prevail. The hope is the diverse perspectives will amalgamate into strategies and common aspirations that are more effective than anyone could produce on their own.  The tough decision part is recognizing that for every YES an organization states, there is at least an implied NO.  While dialog involves compromise, it can’t result in conclusions that please everyone by watering things down to the point where there are at best weak strategies striving for a vague vision of the future.

Another reason why planning can fail is when organizations do not involve the right people in the process.

A plan developed just by the leadership team may succeed but will likely be an uphill battle. Involving leadership, staff at all levels, volunteers, and clients/customers, as well as representatives from key partners will go along way toward not only creating a stellar plan but also creating momentum.

My fourth and last reason why strategic planning fails is when organizations see it as a “point in time” event. Typically this is the strategic planning retreat or workshop.  In reality, effective strategic planning is a living thing. While it articulates what Henry Mintzburg might call “prescribed strategies” a truly strategic organization also has eyes open for “emergent strategies” and incorporates them into their planning documents.

Organizations serious about planning ensure that they are monitoring and evaluating progress against plans, making adjustments along the way, stopping what isn’t working, and introducing new things when it makes sense to do so. In other words, instead of being one of those many reports asleep on the bookshelf, a strategic plan should be on your desk, with marked up pages, folded corners, and a weathered spine from being opened and closed so often. It should be the touchstone document that preoccupies the minds and actions of leadership teams as well as line staff.

I am sure there is a much longer list of reasons why planning fails, but these are, in my experience as a consultant and as an executive staff member in several organizations, the biggest reasons. Turning all of this around into positive statements about how to successfully develop a strategic plan, here you go:

1. Spend enough upfront time when launching a new plan. If you are going to use an in house facilitator or a volunteer, make sure they have the experience, toolbox of skills, and the time to do it.

2. Involve the right people in the planning process and in ongoing planning activities. Plans succeed because of buy-in and buy-in evolves out of meaningful participation. It takes more time, but it is worth it. This includes at the very least asking your customers or clients what they think about where you should be going as an organization. Make sure the CEO is actively leading.

3. Be sure that strategic planning becomes engrained in your organization, not reduced to an annual event. Strategy making as well as strategy monitoring should be integrated into your operational behavior if your plan is going to have every chance of being successful. Remember, new opportunities and threats will emerge over time and will likely lead to changes in your plan.

4. Do the plan. Do the plan. Do the plan. If you have to restructure to do the plan, restructure. If you have to change staffing patterns to do the plan, change the patterns. If you have to stop doing something to do the plan, then stop doing it. If you have to change your minds to do the plan, change your minds. Do the plan.

Not doing it is of course the primary reason why plans fail. I know. That is one of those “duh” statements, but nevertheless it is true. Plans succeed because people succeed in implementing them. They fail because people don’t do them. Enough said!
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Mark Holmgren has provided a range of custom developed planning services and workshops to municipalities, health groups, social service agencies, church groups, and business. If you are looking for assistance with strategic planning and how to integrate strategy-making into your operations, send Mark a note and he will get back to you.

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