Building the Bridge from
Vision to Results
Ten Pillars of Successful Strategic Planning
by Robert Silverman
When approached correctly, an integrated strategic planning process can
become the critical driver of sustained success for companies at all levels
of maturity. For multi-business-unit firms in particular, it can be the source
of organizational alignment that helps the company evolve into a strategically
focused organization. It can provide the roadmap that links a shared corporate
vision down to executable objectives and measures that drive operating results
and growth. It can be the critical driver for companies trying to reach their
next level of success or a roadmap for companies looking to acquire or be
However, when done wrong, strategic planning can be a colossal waste of
time that drains corporate resources and focus away from critical priorities.
How, then, can executives be sure to make the process successful?
What follows is a common sense discussion of what I have found to be the
ten pillars of successful integrated strategic planning.
- Don’t Wait for the Rain
Many firms convince themselves that they do not need to go through a strategic
planning process because things are going well or well enough. However, to
paraphrase JFK, the time to fix the roof is before it starts raining. The
problem is, that without management attention, things age quickly and badly
in a business. As Harvard Business School’s Benson Shapiro once put it, when
left to their own natural aging processes, revenues rot, costs climb, teams
tire, service sinks and profits plummet and all of this can happen quite
If you consider the prevailing wisdom that strategies take from 9-15 months
to implement and organization change takes 12 to 24 months to take root,
it is clear that it is dangerous to wait until there are problems. The strategy
process is akin to good health and exercise: there is never enough time,
the payoff always seems to be too far off for the investment and there always
seem to be immediate priorities that make it easy to push it off until tomorrow.
But, tomorrow can be too late.
- Beware of “Myopic Incrementalism”
A common approach to planning for many firms is to simply put a financial
number up on the wall and direct the business units to plan and execute toward
that number. The strategy devolves into “become a $1 Billion firm in three
years” or “grow by 10% per year.” However, this approach makes it easy to
lose track of where you are and where you need to go. I call this “myopic
incrementalism” because it gives very little strategic direction to executives
and can lead to non-strategic, myopic or incremental thinking. As a result,
the company ends up with business unit plans that are operational, tactical
and short-sighted in nature, focusing only on incremental growth activities
that only move the boat just a little bit further out to sea.
- Strategy is About Aligning Moving Parts
A business has many moving parts and can only become a high-performing machine
when all of these parts are operating in harmony. Many companies focus too
narrowly on specific areas (e.g., financial results, discrete business unit
performance, operational efficiency, sales and marketing, acquisitions, IT
investments, HR programs, or organizational effectiveness) without addressing
the overall strategy holistically.
Just one example of this narrow field of vision is evidenced by recent studies
by David Norton and Robert Kaplan that 67% of HR and IT strategies are not
developed in alignment with business unit or corporate strategies.
To be effective, a strategy needs to be holistic, with all of the company’s
core business drivers aligned and balanced. Companies often find themselves
continually changing sales and marketing models, strategic alliances or organization
charts in the same way you might end up continually replacing tires on a
car that is out of alignment.
- Strategy Requires Clear Context
Organizations often develop a strategy while skipping the critical steps
of an unbiased internal assessment and a strong understanding of the evolving
direction of their market and ecosystem. To be successful, a strategy needs
to be firmly aligned with the core capabilities of the company executing
it. Without an unbiased internal assessment and benchmarking that gives the
executive team a clear understanding of their core assets, limitations, business
drivers, culture, capabilities and capacity, companies risk implementing
strategies that are sub-optimal or not executable.
Likewise, it is critical to build the strategy upon a clear perspective of
the direction (not just the current state) of the company’s markets and ecosystem,
which can change the fundamental ways in which you assess your business.
As an example, a services company migrating along a shift toward increased
product bundling and resell may need to fundamentally change how it looks
at revenue productivity.
- The Brilliance is in the Questions
All too often, organizations short-cut the strategic planning process by
asking the same old questions in the same old way, which inevitably results
in the same stale answers. The brilliance of a successful strategy is not
so much in the answers but in the questions that are asked.
Companies often mistakenly only ask questions they already know the answer
to or, in the worst case, only ask questions that measure what they know
they are good at. It is further critical to question the status quo and all
assumptions engrained into the management team because of past success or
failures. I’ve seen clients make profound changes in how they view themselves,
their markets, their business drivers and their measures of success simply
by asking different questions or even asking questions differently.
- It’s Not the Tool, It’s How You Use It
There are dozens of very valuable analytical models and tools available.
However, these merely guide specific parts of the strategic thinking process
and should not be mistaken for the strategy itself. Moreover, each has its
own particular strengths, weaknesses and optimal application and can be dangerous
if used incorrectly or out of context with the overall planning process.
For example, a Growth-Share matrix analysis may imply that a company’s core
business is a cash cow that should be milked to fund investment in new markets
where a more thorough Five-Forces analysis would have identified shifting
market dynamics and new entrants that threaten to wipe away that very same
core business in the absence of investment. Underlying all of these pillars
is the core principle that is the foundation of successful strategic planning:
strategy is a process, not just a deliverable.
- Strategy and Execution Each Have Little Value Without
A strategy is more than a vision. The success of a strategy comes in its
execution. Execution is what makes the strategy real. The only way a strategy
is successful is if the organization has the understanding, direction and
tools to correctly execute it. The flip side of this is that companies that
execute without a vision can run smoothly and perfectly right into the wall.
To paraphrase an old proverb, a vision without execution is a daydream…but
execution without a vision is a nightmare. The goal is to link strategy down
to execution and the pillars that follow address what is needed for this
- Be Explicit (If a Tree Falls…….)
Often, leaders believe they have a strategy and, while it is not explicitly
communicated throughout the organization, they believe people generally understand
what the firm is trying to achieve. Unfortunately, when I see clients with
that mindset, I generally know that I will find issues. Clear, explicit and
ongoing communication of the strategy is the pre-requisite for linking strategy
down to execution. A survey by Kaplan and Norton also found that, on average,
95% of a company’s employees are unaware of, or do not understand, its strategy.
Without an explicit strategy that has been developed inclusively with the
management team and communicated throughout the organization, it is far too
easy for the organization to not know or fully understand the strategy, let
alone correctly interpret the strategy in order to properly execute it.
- Performance Objectives are the Language
Performance objectives are the most powerful and least leveraged mechanism
to link strategy to execution. Performance objectives provide a universally
understood language to communicate a strategy throughout the organization
and are the key to ensuring that the strategy is executed. However, performance
measures are often rendered strategically ineffective because they are not
viewed in this context. They are often developed independently of the strategy
process. They are often short-term, operational and tactical in nature. They
are often communicated topdown, without the two-way communication valuable
to ensure clear understanding and buy-in. They are often not aligned across
business units or down levels of the organization. Finally, they are often
primarily financial in nature and not balanced across the more holistic dimensions
that will drive sustained growth.
The surveys performed by Norton and Kaplan further found that, on average,
70% of middle managers and 90% of frontline employees have no performance
incentive links the success or failure of their company’s strategy implementation.
Companies that do not build performance objectives within the context of
a larger, integrated strategic plan miss a tremendous opportunity.
- People Execute Strategies
People make strategies successful more often than strategies make people
successful. One of the most critical dynamics determining success or failure
of a business strategy is the cohesive leadership of the people running it
and the execution of the people on the front lines. Organizational limitations
and barriers are often the largest hurdle to strategic success. However,
this dynamic is often underestimated or even overlooked in developing the
strategy. This is unfortunate because, when done right, the strategic planning
process can actually bring these issues to the table.
Beyond the sheer power of leveraging the experience and insights of your
most valuable leaders, the strategic planning process is a tremendous opportunity
to crystallize a shared vision, build a greater sense of joint-ownership,
increase communication and understanding and build a cohesive leadership
team focused on moving the business in the right direction.
The Core Underlying Foundation: Strategy is a Process
Underlying all of these pillars is the core principle that is the foundation
of successful strategic planning: strategy is a process. Strategy is much
more than a deliverable. It is process that must be engrained into the fabric
and business of the organization. The value of going through an integrated
strategic planning process comes from bringing the management team together
to define and embrace the vision, roadmap and milestones that will fundamentally
guide the company into a successful future. More than the deliverable, an
important product of the strategy process should be a cohesive management
team with a shared vision and direction and the ability to think strategically
about the decisions they make.
As Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “Plans are nothing. Planning is everything.”
Robert Silverman is CEO and Founder of ReachSolutions (www.reachsolutions.com),
a management consultancy providing strategic, organizational and operational
consulting to Fortune 500 firms. He can be reached at Robert_Silverman@reachsolutions.com
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