Top 10 Attributes Of Successful Strategic Plans

Did you know more than 70 percent of strategic plans fail? Here's how to make sure yours doesn't.
Vice President, Public Affairs, Vistage International
August 16, 2011

For all of the attention and focus placed on strategic planning and change initiatives, it’s hard to imagine that roughly 70 percent of strategic plans fail and 73 percent of change initiatives fall short of producing any meaningful or lasting change. Troubled by these figures, our Vistage Chairs (former executives turned business mentors) compared notes on initiatives that have succeeded and, sourcing some renowned scholars, have come up with a top 10 list of shared attributes.

1. Objective situational and stakeholder analysis

Without an objective and unbiased understanding of “what’s going on here,” you’re not likely to come up with strategies that will be very effective. Take a hard look at what’s happening externally and internally and pay special attention to the needs of your stakeholders. As John Dewey once said, “A problem well defined is a problem half solved.”

2. Clarity of purpose and realistic goals

It’s critical for your people to understand the purpose of your strategic initiative and have clear goals that are aspirational, yet realistic, notes Ned Frey, owner of Foursight Seminars Inc. He talks about it in terms of “purpose, focus and passion.” Clarity of purpose fuels the focus and passion required to achieve a sustainable, successful effort.

3. Sense of urgency

“Without a sense of urgency, it’s too easy to put off until tomorrow what should be acted upon today,” says Allen Hauge, president of Hauge Farms, Inc. Harvard Business School professor emeritus John Kotter describes it as “a gut level determination to act today.” It doesn’t mean lighting a fire under someone by manipulating urgency through false crisis, instead, it’s about lighting the fire within and inspiring a sustainable will to change.

4. Strategies that underscore your values and play to your organizational strengths

Strategy isn’t just about what anyone would do; it’s about understanding what YOU would do, based on your priorities and values. In the book Built to Last, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras talk about the importance of balancing the unchanging core (values and company purpose), while stimulating progress (change and innovation). Steve Brody, a former senior executive with Coca-Cola, adds, “And be sure to play to your organizational strengths. Not doing so is the equivalent of what Tom Rath describes as, ‘taking the path of most resistance.’ ”

5. Understanding your culture

Working with your culture, rather than fighting it, can go a long way toward aligning and moving your organization forward. Whenever possible, swim with the current, not against it. If you try to force change, your plan is destined to be among the strategic initiatives that fail.

6. Leadership

Leaders can’t force change, but they can guide it. That means leading from the front, or as Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner would say, “modeling the way.” If employees sense that the leadership’s commitment is tepid, then that’s what leaders can expect in return.  Conversely, savvy leadership from the c-suite will inspire others in your organization to lead as well. Without them, your plan is going nowhere.

7. Unwavering discipline

Commitment to achieving strategic goals is still not enough—you also need execution. Successful execution means having the discipline necessary to achieve your goals and make sustainable behavioral change. In individual terms, for example, someone might be committed to losing 10 pounds, yet lack the discipline to do what’s necessary to achieve that goal and maintain the new weight. It’s no different in organizations.

8. Transparency

It’s essential that your people embrace the strategic plan as their own plan. Failing that, you’re asking your employees to be more committed to your goals than their own—hardly very realistic. To accomplish this level of buy-in, it’s important to have transparency right from the start. To sustain the effort, employees should understand and be kept apprised of how their daily activities are helping achieve the desired outcomes.

9. Monitoring, measurement and feedback

“Even the best strategic plans require adjustments along the way,” says Linda Gabbard, president of Framework Initiatives Company, Inc. That means looking at both intended and unintended effects. Monitor your plan’s progress, measure outputs as well as outcomes, obtain feedback from all your stakeholders and stay nimble. Identifying and documenting key assumptions about the plan is essential. Periodically, challenge your assumptions. If the assumptions are no longer relevant, your plan won’t be either.

10. Anchoring the changes in company culture

Recognize small wins, reward your people and reinforce the positive results your strategic initiatives have produced. Doing so will go a long way to taking strategy and change from just what you do to being who you are.

Vice President, Public Affairs, Vistage International