The Main Reasons Strategic Planning Fails

March 25, 2013 — 9 Comments

When I was a college student, my New Venture Studies class had the opportunity to advise a local resident starting his own coffee shop. As an aspiring entrepreneur, I was excited to be involved – that is, until I realized the capital came from an inheritance. I was further perturbed when one of his first initiatives was to purchase a brand new Honda Element to cover with advertising before his shop was even finished. Our client didn’t need a new vehicle. He needed a strategic plan.

Puzzle PiecesYou’ve probably heard the adage, “if you fail to plan, you’re planning to fail.” Strategic planning initiatives give organizational and departmental leaders the chance to define strategy, set direction and make key decisions. It breathes life into the vision and gives the existing motivation a track to run on. But a plan doesn’t inherently ensure success.

I recently spoke with my friend John Maloney of ASJ Consulting about why strategic planning fails. Whether you’re a one-man shop or a large organization, here are some of the main reasons we identified.

Lack of Buy-In

If the leaders of an organization or department don’t think it’s important to create a strategic plan – or that it’s a waste of time compared to their normal duties – it’ll be hard for them to invest their full attention and effort into the process. If the chief doesn’t buy in, it’s already over. Make sure to elicit the top leader’s buy-in for both the process and purpose – and use his or her influence to convince the rest to participate.

Misunderstanding the Difference Between a Strategy and a Plan

A strategy is not the same thing as a plan, and a plan is not the same thing as a strategy. The two are different. A strategy is a set of choices that clarify the organization’s competitive advantage, value proposition, target markets and essential capabilities. A plan is an actual list of goals, objectives and tasks that need to be accomplished. A plan becomes “strategic” when it is informed by the strategy. Without a strategy, a plan is simply an organized list of good ideas. Don’t just create a plan; do your homework before the event and come prepared to develop the plan together.

There’s “No Time” on the Calendar

Of course, every leader has the same amount of time on the calendar. Claiming there is no time indicates that planning is a low priority. If the leaders don’t see the value in spending time away from normal activities to plan for the future, they’ll opt for spending 1-2 hours discussing top of mind ideas instead of investing the 1-2 days required to create an effective plan together. Make sure strategic planning events make it on the calendar well in advance and have high priority. Conducting the session offsite can really help cut down on distractions.

Lack of Participation

If the leaders whose strategic insight is required to produce an effective plan can’t get on the same page, you may end up with a plan, but it won’t be the plan you need to win. If there is a high degree of fragmentation, politicking or if the departments operate in silos, leaders’ first priority may be vying more for budget and resources instead of open collaboration. Make sure both the chief and the facilitator elicit open and candid collaboration.

Complicated End Product

Many leaders assume strategic plans need to be completely comprehensive and addresses every concern and possibility. In some large organizations, higher leadership elements may mandate that strategic plans adhere to a certain format or length. But for the rest, large plans can actually create a disincentive for implementation simply because they are too detailed – especially for leaders who aren’t natural planners. It’s possible for a strategic plan to fit on a single page as long as you discipline your team to clarify which priorities are most important.

It Never Gets Implemented

This is one of the results of an overly-complicated plan. No one wants to deal with it! Make sure each task has an owner assigned. In addition, make sure the entire plan has an owner – someone who will follow up with the task owners and track the progress. If the chief leader isn’t the acting owner of the strategic plan, he should appoint (or the other leaders agree on) a “strategic plan czar” who will perform the follow-up duties.

Sticking to “the Plan”

You read that right. Sticking to the plan can actually get in the way of execution effectiveness. At the end of the day, a strategic plan is like a battle plan or a game plan. Once you get into the action, you’ll have to improvise. A strategic plan should be written in pencil. If it’s immune to any changes, your team won’t be able to make the necessary adjustments. Invest in period revisions.

Both John and I address all of these issues when we facilitate strategic planning sessions with clients. If you’ve never investing in a strategic planning process, or for more information, visit my Consulting page.

Nathan Magnuson is a leadership consultant, coach, trainer and thought leader.  Receive his ebook Trusted Leadership Advisor by subscribing to his website or   follow him on Twitter.
  • My frustration is when the plan changes!

    • I agree, Tom. It’s frustrating to me to not have a plan at all. And a plan that is immune to change probably isn’t good. Are you talking about plans that changed that shouldn’t have changed?

      • I’m talking about not giving a plan long enough to start working before killing it.

        • Ah, yes, that is demoralizing, esp. if you are one of the ones who invested in creating the thing!

    • Tom, I get the frustration, particularly if changes are simply knee-jerk, but one of the essential elements to strategic planning is seeing the the “plan” as a dynamic thing that HAS to change in response to conditions. I’d suggest that strategic planning and its value has as much to do with the exercise of planning, rather than the plan. And the payoff for planning only comes when you drive the elements down to employees to create the organization you need to get the results. (see “Our Dead Strategic Plan”, at http://work911.com//articles/deadplan.htm

      • Thanks for the contribution, Robert. That’s a great point about the value of the “exercise of planning.”

        • I forgot to mention that we operate a free open library on all aspects of planning, including strategic planning at http://work911.com/planningmaster/ . Also don’t know if you’ve looked at any of Mintzberg’s work on strategic planning. It’s quite interesting.

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