Thursday, February 24, 2011

I'm Jeff and I'm a Planaholic - The First Step in Recovery

I've seen a number of articles on why strategic plans fail. Any number of reasons are given:

  • No follow up
  • No one takes ownership for implementation
  • Organizational culture kills the plan
  • The plan is too complicated or too rigid
  • Only top leadership knows the strategy
  • The plan hasn't been communicated

I'm sure if you've been through a strategic planning process more than once, you can add to the list.

When alcoholics or addicts are said to be "in denial," they believe that other people and circumstances are the source of their problem. "If you had my boss, you'd drink, too. . ." I believe organizational leaders are "in denial" about strategic planning. They blame plan failure on "the culture" or "the plan hasn't been well communicated," etc.

The elephant in the room not being addressed is whether the concept of having such a plan in and of itself is the root of the problem, not the various circumstances that lead to its failure.

Strategic planning is fundamentally flawed concept. Think about it. Shouldn't it be a red flag that in order to "make a plan work" you've got to change an organizational culture, realign resources, communicate the plan ad nauseum, restructure, get top leadership buy in, make it flow through the organizational structure, overcome resistance, engage in "change management," and so on?

If the plan is truly disruptive, my experience is an organization ends up losing its "soul" and employees become disillusioned or leave. But more often, the plan isn't executed with enthusiasm and stakeholders just ignore it and wait for this latest management push to "blow over." Even executive leadership eventually gets bored with the plan, goes on autopilot, and does what it's been doing all along.

Occasionally, though, a plan is executed effectively. What I've rarely observed is an organizational transformation occurring as a result of this. More often, the plan's goals are achieved, that's all. We did that, check. And that, check. And that, check. Now let's come up with a new list of things to check off and say we did them.

So if strategic planning is a flawed concept, what's the alternative? Let's reconsider where plans fail: culture, communication, alignment, and execution. As leaders, that's where we should spend our time. Forget a structured plan. Focus instead on the culture and structure that facilitates acting on the BIG IDEA (vision).

Our efforts should center around designing strategic focus, not a strategic plan.

When a group of people walking downtown decides they want to have Chinese food, they don't need to stop, analyze and draw up a detailed action plan. Once the decision is made, one person gets on their smart phone and figures out where the nearest Chinese restaurants are. Another person says "Oh, I've heard about that one on Main Street. It's supposed to be great." Someone else calls the restaurant to check if reservations are needed or if there's a long wait. When they pick the restaurant they want, they all head for it and have a great time.

If the goal is clear and simple, people will create their own action plans naturally. Individuals will choose their roles and their paths in fulfilling the vision. Leadership's role is simply to facilitate the big choice -- Chinese or Italian?

Friday, February 18, 2011

Don't Let What If's Kill a Big Idea

Beginning with this article, I'm going to lay out new concepts in strategic planning/thinking, which go contrary to prevailing wisdom about strategic planning methodology. Then I'm going to explain a new process called Zen Strategy.

I'll begin by addressing the ubiquitous SWOT Analysis. Most strategic planning sessions begin with a SWOT (Strengths / Weaknesses / Opportunities / Threats) analysis.

Stupid waste of time.

Yep, stupid waste of time. Why?

Innovations happen because a person with a BIG IDEA doesn't know it can't work. It was a great idea and they acted on it. If obstacles came along, they figured out how to overcome them. Simple.

Why would you want to begin a process of coming up with a BIG IDEA by first thinking of all the obstacles and reasons it can't work? Furthermore, most obstacles we try to predict 1) never happen or 2) don't happen the way we envisioned. It's a futile exercise in fantasy to begin strategy planning by doing an environmental scan, trying to predict what we might encounter, in order not to be "blindsided." Guess what? At some point you'll be blindsided anyway. Get over it.

And that leads me to a second point that goes against prevailing wisdom. Studying the competition has no place in the strategic planning process. Another stupid waste of time. There is only one competitor, you. This can be a collective "you" as the leaders of an organization, as well as just you, the individual.

Am I saying you should never scan your environment or study your competition? Absolutely not. Of course you should. Not doing so could be fatal.

Confused? Here is what I'm saying: environmental scanning and studying your competition are TACTICAL activities that should take place in REAL TIME, not as part of a planning or visioning process.

When you come up with a BIG IDEA, you don't want any "what if" thoughts to creep in. The last thing you want to do is kill a big idea before it ever gets a chance to breathe. If it's a good idea, your only focus should be on how to act on it. Pay attention to real threats in real time and defend your idea against them in real time.

An illustration. I have a goal to cross a river in my kayak and land at a specific point on the opposite shore. I happen to know there are changing currents, unseen debris and crocodiles hidden in the river, but I'll deal with them when and if I encounter them. I set a course for the other side, and making my estimate of the best course based on what I can actually see in front of me, I begin paddling. As I paddle and encounter ACTUAL obstacles, I make adjustments. Frequently, I glance up to see where I am in relation to where I want to land. I continue paddling, dealing with obstacles and adjusting until I reach the point I'm headed for.

There are only three important steps in this process. Pick a destination, paddle towards it, and adjust course when obstacles are encountered. Most importantly, the course is driven only by the landing point (big idea), not real or imagined threats.