Avoid strategic planning traps

I recently had a call with a CEO about facilitating a strategic planning retreat this fall with 15 of their top leaders. That will be a refreshing change — we’re all fully vaccinated and ready to get together in person again.

The CEO sent me their draft agenda for the session. Looking at the fairly typical approach they’ve used before, four common strategic planning problems immediately popped out:

  • The agenda was loaded with about 17 reviews and updates. Yikes! Nap by PowerPoint. Hopefully, the snores won’t wake others up.
  • The session was focused on operational and tactical issues. With these highly technical leaders (many are engineers), there’s likely to be lots of picking fly specks out of the pepper.
  • Reporting and data dumping leaves little time for strategic thinking and prioritizing. Drenched by the information firehose, it’s hard to look at the big picture.
  • Leadership and culture development to build capacity for implementation planning wasn’t on the agenda. Magical thinking causes many leaders to come back from planning sessions and direct their managers to, as Jean Luc Picard, captain of the USS Enterprise, commanded, “Make it so.”

This typical approach to strategic planning is a prime example of why decades of research show that 50 – 70% of planning and change efforts fail. For example, a Harvard Business Review article by Michael Beer and Nitin Nohria on “Cracking the Code of Change” concludes, “the brutal fact is that about 70% of all change initiatives fail.” An IBM survey of over 1,400 leaders responsible for designing, creating, and implementing change in their organizations found “only 20% of respondents are considered successful in managing change.”

As the old saying goes, “if you don’t change direction, you’ll end up where you’re headed.” This leadership team was heading straight for one of seven common causes of failure – partial and piecemeal programs.

What’s Your Plan for Planning?

It’s that time of year when many leadership teams are organizing planning sessions for this fall. If you’re planning a planning session, here are a few key points you might find useful:

  • Updates and reports need to be condensed to succinct points of information. Restrict slides and provide a summary format. The key output of these brief presentations needs to answer the “so what?” strategic question.
  • Use anonymous surveys, third-party assessments, or other safe ways for participants to voice concerns and have real conversations about what they feel are the biggest issues to be addressed. These are often very touchy, political — and avoided. Smothering silence can be deadly.
  • Boil all the plans and actions down to three or four Strategic Imperatives and set up deployment strategies around those. Avoid the way too common trap of priority overload.
  • Planning and budgeting focus on maximizing capital and operational dollars. How about the other equally vital – and very scarce – resource; time? Are leaders using their personal and team time strategically? How do you know?
  • A great strategy that is poorly executed is useless. A strategy is only as good as the team implementing it. Leadership team dynamics and culture development are entwined.
  • Aspiration and application are often separated by a massive capability gap. I might aspire to be an Olympic athlete, but my ability to compete at that level is rather limited! Build organizational capacity through leadership and culture development
  • Planning sessions focus on what needs improvement and what needs to change — on how to get from where we are now to where we want to be. That can be daunting and sometimes tiring. An excellent retreat starting point is to list all the accomplishments and successes of the past year. What does this tell us about our strengths and can-do possibilities?

Given all we’ve been through in the past 18 months, refocusing and re-energizing is especially important. An effective retreat can help your team advance. Make good use of your time together so your planning is truly strategic.