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Why don’t strategic plans work anymore (and what does?)

When, eons ago, I graduated from university, a friend offered me to join him on a yacht to

sail around the Mediterranean. We were still free of any obligations, had enough money, and planned to do the odd job if we ran out at any time. It was the best time of my life. Eventually we ran out of money (the odd-job plan didn’t work as we had hoped) and we went back home to real life.

There is a lesson here. Running an organisation without a strategic plan is a bit like my yacht adventure – it may be great fun, but you will not get anywhere specific, and you might run out of money at some point.

A strategic plan is invaluable for an organisation’s success, whether it is a commercial entity or a charity. It sets the course for the organisation to reach its goals. ®

Unfortunately, only one in three plans work. Having taken part in quite a few of those in my days in the corporate world I did some research to find out why. This is what I have found:

1. Methodology – strategic plans are usually created by outside consultants. This has two drawbacks:

a. They are prohibitively expensive so many organisations simply don’t do them, and those who do can’t repeat them frequently enough, so they become irrelevant at some point.

b. The organisation’s management team is involved only as a source of information, not in actually setting up the plan so they are less than committed to it.

2. Top-down – strategos is Greek is a general of the army, and it implies that the top brass knows best, and the rest of the organisation just need to comply. These days employees at all levels want to be involved. Otherwise, they are simply not engaged.

3. Implementation – strategic plans usually don’t include an implementation schedule, accountabilities, deadlines, or follow-up. Without these, as any project manager will know, success is unlikely.

For a strategic plan to work it needs to be:

- Internal – do it yourself (with the help of a facilitator, if needed) with your team to ensure maximum commitment and harvest the best insight and knowledge they possess.

- Engaging – by leading your team in setting up the plan you will guarantee their engagement throughout its implementation.

- Medium-term –there is little point in creating a five or ten-year plan any more so, while having your eyes on the Dream Goal, identify the Boosters for the next three years and create a plan for the next twelve months.

- Agile – a strategic plan is not the gospel. Review and revise it if and when needed.

Hereunder are the stages of a strategic planning process that I have found to be most effective:

1. WHY –you’d be surprised how many organisations never sit down to formalise their Dream Goal – how will the organisation look one day, when it will be all you ever wanted it to be. Running an organisation without a defined Dream Goal is a bit like my post-grad yacht adventure – it may be fun but will not get you anywhere.

2. WHO – often referred to as Organisational Culture (another big word), I prefer to focus on the values that are critical to you and your team. It may sound a bit new-agey to some, but values are important for two reasons:

a. An organisation without a clear set of values will find it hard to keep its team engaged and motivated. They will do what they must but without fire in their bellies, and the results will be accordingly.

b. An organisation with a clear set of values will make better decisions faster. For an inspirational story to demonstrate this read the Johnson & Johnson’s Tylenol poisoning story (https://www.stratagility.co.uk/post/the-value-of-values-or-how-values-saved-johnson-johnson)

3. WHERE – when we set out on our yacht trip, private commercial GPS was taking it first steps in the yachting world. It didn’t even exist in cars at the time. Nowadays when you start the Satnav in your car the first thing it will do, after asking you where you want to go (the WHY in our context) is to pinpoint where you are now. There are a few ways to do this, but I recommend:

a. SWOT analysis – a well-known methodology to identify the organisations Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. In other words, its current internal state (strengths and weaknesses) and environment (opportunities and threats). Read more about it on https://www.stratagility.co.uk/post/how-to-conduct-a-swot-analysis.

b. Stakeholders needs analysis – a less known but at least as equally effective tool. The aim is to identify the most important needs of the most important stakeholders in the organisation that are the least met. Read more on https://www.stratagility.co.uk/post/stakeholders-needs-analysis-the-poor-relative-of-swot-analysis.

4. WHAT – once you know where you are, where you want to eventually get, and what’s important to you on the way, it is time to find out the things you can and need to do in order to get one step closer to your Dream Goal. I call these things Boosters. Note that I used the term “one step closer”, and for a good reason. As I wrote before, you can’t normally plan to get all the way to your Dream Goal. It is usually too far into the future and too many things will change while you are on your way, so focus on boosters that are achievable in the next twelve to thirty-six months. Make sure to select those that are:

a. Impactful – will make a real change

b. Essential – without them very little will happen

c. Fast-burners – their impact will be felt within a short period of time

5. HOW – possibly the most critical element of a strategic plan, and one that most are missing. In this stage you will create a detailed execution schedule for each of the boosters for the next twelve months, split into quarters. For the same reasons that you only plan boosters for the next three years, the implementation plan is only for one year as things will change along the way. There is no point in making a detailed plan for a longer period of time.

Each booster must have:

- An accountable leader who will make sure it happens

- Quarterly targets

- Weekly tasks

- KPI’s

6. Implementation – all this hard work you will have done by now will be worthless if not implemented. To do this each leader needs to keep weekly meetings to review last week’s tasks and plan the next week’s. Once a quarter (at least) the whole team needs to get together to review the entire plan and make course correction, if needed.

The main hinderance to strategic plans’ success is that in every organisation the urgent trumps the important. It takes a lot of discipline and practice to make sure that strategic tasks and targets are kept in a high enough place on your to-do lists.


This contemporary alternative to outsourced strategic planning has already proved itself in countless organisations. There is no reason why it shouldn’t work for you.


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