Enough chatter, let’s get down to something we can actually do!” That’s how one CEO, in a recent strategic-planning session for his business, expressed a problem I see all too often: translating all the planning we do into a plan that gets executed.
Words are good. Actions are better. Even politicians are sometimes afflicted with a bias for action. As British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once expressed to his Queen Victoria: “Action does not necessarily lead to happiness, but without action there can be no happiness.”
In the businesses that I’ve both worked in and advised, I’ve learned a few things about connecting the dots between planning and action that I want to share with you.
First, let’s clarify our terms. Strategy has been defined many ways. In its simplest form, strategy is the broad pathway that you have decided to take to get to a goal. For example, two distinctly different strategies for surviving a recession would be to boldly go on offence, or to hunker down and play defence. Tactics are individual action items within a strategy — such as supporting your salesforce with additional marketing dollars or acquiring an overextended competitor. One individual, usually the CEO, is tasked with “owning the strategy,” and the board should check in with him or her at least once each quarter to see how it is or isn’t coming along and what should be done about it. Each tactic, however, should be “owned” by some member of the management team, with clear deliverables in terms of outcomes and time frames expressed in weeks if not days.
Sounds great in theory. But in practice, it’s very messy. The main lesson I have learned is to keep it small and simple. But this is also easier to say than do.
Last June, my business partner Walter Shaw and I completed a strategic-planning session with one of our clients: Toronto-based Nevada Learning Series (NLS), which is best known for its “quick reference guides” for computer software. By the end of Day 1, the wall was papered with lists of Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. But how could we find in all of this something resembling the “hedgehog” that Jim Collins describes in Good to Great? It’s the thing you can build the company around because it meets these three criteria: your people are passionate about it; your company has the capabilities to be the best in the world at it; and your customers value it enough that you can make good money at it.
Guess what? We didn’t find NLS’s hedgehog. But we did identify these three things: the biggest weakness that the company needed to address right way, three strategic opportunities that could be acted on immediately and three long-term strategic opportunities.
Guess what, again? By September, not much had happened in relation to the plan. Flip-chart sheets hanging on a wall — even when turned into nice meeting minutes, with action items and assignments — don’t do much. That’s because they aren’t connected to the inner workings of the business and what people do every day. And that’s usually because the first few days after the strategic-planning session have already been designated for activities unrelated to the new plan. Or the phone calls keep coming in and fires keep erupting, and we react to them as we always did.
This state of affairs exasperated NLS president Brett Purcell, an entrepreneur with a bias for action. “We gotta get this into the business, or what did we do it for?” he exclaimed. So, we introduced three tactics to drive the strategy. First was a quarterly sales meeting in which the account executives not only mapped out their existing business but had a space on their weekly planner to say what they were going to do each week to push at least one of the new strategic opportunities with customers. Second, Brett adopted Salesforce.com so that he and his team could track not only their plans, but also those messy things we call “actuals.” The rubber really hits the road with the third tactic, which is a weekly sales meeting in which Brett asks his management team three great questions: What were your goals for the week? Did you achieve them? If not, why not? The relentless pursuit of these questions delivers three things: better goals, better performance and better (and sometimes new) people.
As for NLS’s longer-term opportunities, Brett could have scattered them across everyone’s plate, where they’d become D priorities. Instead, he established a long-term development committee. It has regular meeting dates and some outside members, and its mandate is to develop new product ideas.
Connecting the dots of strategy with specific tactics does not ensure success, but it improves your odds and reduces the frustration of your people. Without this, they might ask, “Why did we waste all that time in that off-site meeting? We’re not using anything we came up with. The boss should have saved the money and thrown us a good year-end party instead.”
Connect the dots, and you’ll be able to throw an even better — and more meaningful — party.