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Posted by on Feb 11, 2014 in Business, Culture, Featured, Leadership, Strategy | 2 comments

DIY Strategic Planning: Creating Meaningful Engagement

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If you are planning for a year, sow rice; if you are planning for a decade, plant trees; if you are planning for a lifetime, educate people.  - Chinese Proverb 

One of the most critical ingredients in building a successful organization is to have a clear strategic agenda, which helps the company focus its energies and resources to create competitive advantage and also gives guidance on the number and scope of internal projects and initiatives that must be funded and resourced.

There are two schools of thought as to how to develop your strategic agenda.  The most widely supported is to hire one of the top strategy consulting firms who come in and work with you to develop your strategic agenda.  They have the time, the manpower, the brains and certainly the experience to help you build a winning strategy and go forward agenda.

While this is the “safest” approach (no one ever got fired for hiring McKinsey), it has several drawbacks.  First is the fact that as these companies have grown into global powerhouses the quality of their work and advice has suffered.  We all know of at least one CEO who got a “boilerplate” strategy, and some even had the previous client’s name on it.

The real problem with outside firms helping you develop your strategy is the fact that in most cases they really don’t help, they do the work for you.

Okay, let’s say you do get a strategy that was crafted just for you.  The next drawback is the cost: normally upwards of a million.  Okay, you can afford it and the Board is supportive.  The real problem with outside firms helping you develop your strategy is the fact that in most cases they really don’t help, they do the work for you.  An army of junior consultants descends upon your organization, gathers information, crunches numbers, holds focus groups, and work long into the night. The result is you may get a good (even great) strategy, but your leadership team, and employees, don’t really “own” it.

What we mean by “lack of ownership” is your team didn’t do the hard thinking, sweat out the details and metrics, nor did they have the debates and arguments that would result in a jointly agreed plan they are all committed to delivering.  In most cases the plan was developed by an army of smart MBAs under the guidance of a senior consulting partner and delivered to your management team as an impressive PowerPoint presentation along with a stack of binders.  I will wager a large amount that very few members of your senior team have read the entire strategy document, front to back!  It’s just not theirs!  They aren’t viscerally engaged, they aren’t really excited about it, and this is one of the key reasons why good strategies fail to get delivered.

The second school of thought about developing a strategic agenda is to built it yourself: the CEO, the senior team and whoever else in the company has the capability and desire to contribute to building the future of the company.

I can hear the push-back already:  “we’ve got a business to run, we don’t have the time, we’ve got a strategic planning department – it’s their job, we’re too close to the issue and need a broader, more global perspective”.  The list goes on and on.

We take the opposite view:  who knows the company, it’s capabilities, it’s strengths, it’s weaknesses, its customers better than the senior team and employees?  And when they take time to have the debates, present and defend new initiatives, align around new strategic objectives, a curious thing happens.  They “own” the plan.  They created it.  They understand it.  It is theirs!  And commitment and meaningful engagement is what you don’t get when outsiders build the plan.

Who knows the company, it’s capabilities, it’s strengths, it’s weaknesses, its customers better than the senior team and employees?

The other important part of engaging your team and key employees from all levels is that it becomes easier to align and focus the entire organization on execution.  And the ability to execute is even more important than the plan itself.  Too many excellent strategic plans wind up sitting on shelves gathering dust because they were developed without giving thought to “executability”.  By engaging more and more employees in the strategy debates and thinking, not only do you create involvement and meaningful work, you test the ability of the company to execute.  People closer to customers and the actual work will come up with suggestions that almost always improve the plan and its delivery.

DIY strategic planning can create a better strategy and greater buy-in, commitment, engagement and delivery focus.  So get started!

There is no strategy without execution, and there is no execution without commitment!

 

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John R. Childress

John R. Childress is a senior executive advisor with more than 35 years experience working with senior executive teams and global organizations on the role of culture, performance, leadership and strategy execution. An effective public speaker, Childress is the author of FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution. His writings bring best practices into a synthesis of sage advice for the CEO and business leader committed to improving culture and performance. His new book LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture will be released on 01 December 2013.

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  • Parissa Behnia

    Having lived the corporate life previously, I’ve seen outside consultants try to help with mixed results. I’ve also been tasked with strategic planning projects. The issue in the latter case is that it is an “add on” to everything the team/key employees are already assigned to do. There is so much emphasis placed on “blocking and tackling” that strategic projects/initiatives fall by the wayside. If a company wants to rely on DIY (which can be most awesome), it needs to allocate the work such that what is delivered lives up to expectations.

  • Dianne Crampton

    John, your article poses some good theories. However, I would assert that senior executives are often out of touch with line employees and, therefore, what is needed to improve work and systems. Over the 20 years we have been serving executive teams, we have had senior executives stand before us and say, “When I ask our employees how to change things for the better the resounding retort is silence.” That is why it often makes sense for someone else to co-create strategic direction with them provided that there is executive accountability and commitment to follow through.

    There are a couple of reasons.

    Depending on how well senior executives know their employees beyond a nod and an “atta boy”, the need to be genuine in responding to the question, “How can we improve this?” is based on two considerations. The first is the need for connection and the second is fear of retaliation. If the culture over the past 5 years has been to kill the messenger, trust and genuineness will be too low to build strategies and workforce development plans with any true grit and reality to them. And, the “killing the messenger approach” can damage organizational trust for up to five years.

    In 2012 we surveyed 2835 Senior Global HR Executives to learn that trust is at an all time low and the will to improve trust in organizations plummets the larger the organization is. So possibly your point of view is better served in smaller organizations.

    Then there is the matter of what an executive team does with genuine observations from employees. If the suggestions are too close to a pet project or system a member of the team is intolerant of touching, responding truthfully to executive questions to see no change is more damaging to worker morale than saying nothing at all.

    Finally there is the level of executive facilitation competence. Given that the executive is trusted, lack of facilitation skills will not raise the bar high enough to secure employee engagement.

    Given the dismal statistics that 2 out of 3 change efforts fail, what is really needed is leadership team commitment, humility and accountability to do what is necessary to ensure that change through strategic planning does occur.

    Given that talent management and workforce development planning are two of the most serious problems facing executive teams at this time in U.S. history, serious executives who fail to secure good outside assistance could very seriously come up short with sustainable and talented employees to fill job requirements in the years ahead.

    Now is not the time to play around.