Effective strategic planning and strategy execution are key to driving business success and growth. Unfortunately, leaders tend to focus more on the planning process and less on doing or executing.
Strategic planning is the process of articulating the vision of what the organization wants to be, defining its strategy, setting strategic initiatives, making decisions on allocating its resources to pursue this strategy, and aligning the organization to ensure that employees and other stakeholders collaborate toward common objectives.
The focus is on the future direction and performance of the organization. Through strategic planning exercises, organizations tend to produce 3-5 year rigid strategic plans documenting the organization’s strategic goals as well as action plans to achieve those goals.
Rigid strategic plans work best in a stable environment. However, times have changed. Today’s business environment is awash with substantial volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. The abnormal is now normal and uncertainty is now certain.
As a result, enormous doubt has been cast on the effectiveness of strategic planning in the current environment, leading some to claim that strategic planning is dead.
I don’t buy this view. Strategic planning is not dead.
Yes, the environment is constantly evolving, and the organization needs to be flexible, adaptive and responsive. But, how can you address and navigate the future without a well laid plan and strategy?
In their book Sun Tzu: The Art of War for Managers, Gerald A. Michaelson and Steven Michaelson cite that:
A common mistake is to consider planning as only a mental process, an idea in our head that simply looks at the past and adjusts for the future. If your plan is not in writing, you do not have a plan at all. Instead, you have only a dream, a vision, or perhaps even a nightmare.
This is not about producing long strategy documents that very few read. Rather, it is about a producing a simple written plan that is easy to understand, such as a strategy map.
Strategy maps helps leaders define and communicate the strategy of the organization by creating a visual representation of the key business objectives on a single page. Strategy maps also outline the strategic aims and priorities of the organization and help to ensure everyone is working towards common goals.
The organization’s plan must not be rigid in nature, but flexible enough to accommodate changes in the environment or business requirements.
As a football fanatic and an avid Arsenal FC fan, I have experienced a fair share of exciting and disappointing matches. But, over the past few years, I have come to appreciate the fact that rigidity does not win matches.
Within the same match, I have watched Arsenal quickly switch from a 4-3-3 formation to a 4-2-3-1 and make substitutions depending on the realities of the match. Even though the manager had a 90 minutes’ game plan before kick-off, he also had other plans that allowed for flexibility in formations to adapt to reality.
The same approach should be adopted in business. Rather than stick to rigid planning systems that convey a message that obedience to the plan is key to business success and growth, leaders need to implement plans that allow the assessment of business performance under different scenarios.
Defining strategy and tactics
Put simply, strategy is about doing the right thing. It is about how an organization will move forward and figuring out how to advance its interests. In war terms, it is seeking victory before the battle.
On the other hand, tactics is doing things right. It is the implementation. The battle or action of the war.
However, often times there is confusion on whether strategy determines tactics or it is tactics that determine strategy.
Seeing that strategy definition is part of the planning process, and tactics is about implementation, it is safe to conclude that strategy always comes before tactics.
It is therefore important for leaders to understand that for tactics to effectively support the strategy by doing things right, the strategy itself must be right first. You must be doing the right thing. A bad strategy underpinned by good tactics can be a fast route to failure.
To do the right thing, leaders need to primarily stop focusing more on or reacting to competitors. Great strategies do not arise from reacting to competitors.
Instead, they are a product of intense discussion and deliberation that take into consideration the organization’s internal strengths and weaknesses including external threats and opportunities.
The focus should be on identifying unfulfilled customer needs or Jobs to Be Done, then devising solutions to meet those needs and ultimately assessing competitive realities to determine the viability of your strategy.
Oftentimes, the decision sequence is wrong. Leaders initially focus on profit requirements, and the decision on the needs of the market is secondary. First, you must satisfy the needs of the market. Then, and only then, can you profit from your actions.
Separating planning from execution
Innovation, profitability, and growth all depend on having strategy and execution fit together seamlessly. However, spending too much time in planning can breed indecisiveness and error.
The important thing is to get started. Unfortunately, many of us are good at thinking and bad at doing. With the right strategy, the battle is only half won. The strategy succeeds only with informed and intelligent execution of tactics.
Issues arise when planning is separated from execution. Majority of good strategies fail due to poor execution. Well thought-out plans are not followed through properly because of limited resources, managerial talent or operational skills. In some cases, it is because people are focusing on the wrong things, products or services.
To avoid poor execution of good strategies, leaders must have the ability to clearly define and communicate the strategy to employees in a format that is easy to comprehend. This is necessary for ensuring that everyone has an idea of what the key priorities of the organization are and their role in accomplishing these.
It is also important to measure, track and report on the progress of the strategy against the critical success factors of the business. This is essential for determining what is working and what is not working and make immediate adjustments to prevent further deterioration.
I welcome your thoughts and comments.