Documenting a strategy or strategic plan, has almost become a fad in the modern business era. In fact, organizations, these days, describe their strategic plans with catchy phrases such as “our three-year robust strategic plan”, “our well-articulated strategy”, “our five-year comprehensive strategic plan”, etc. Similarly, others “launch” theirs with media fanfare.
A strategic plan is necessary; in fact, in certain sectors, it is compulsory on account of regulation. However, there are issues in its conceptualization, documentation, and execution; and organizations need to consider these to avoid unnecessary waste of resources.
First: organizations should answer the question: why are we documenting our strategy/strategic plan? Are we documenting it just for its sake?
In answering, they must determine if it was a regulatory requirement, a tool for sustainable profitability, deliberately stating product and/or service boundary, delineating areas of focus, etc.
The second issue is to avoid the mistake of considering a strategic plan as “management’s headache”. This is one of the reasons for failure of strategy. When management dominates idea-setting, documentation, execution, and performance measurement, without engaging employees, the strategic planning process is bound to fail!
Third: the commitment for documenting and executing the plan must be shared by all stakeholders, including Board of Directors, CEO, and all employees.
In order to address the ‘staff-engagement-challenge’ in big organizations, employees have to be engaged well ahead of project commencement via meetings/briefings, focus groups, intranet pop-up messages, CEO’s email, etc.
Another major reason for failure of strategy is informing staff a few days to project commencement. While I have seen organizations inform their staff on the eve of project kick-off; in another instance, it was from external consultants that some employees knew about the project, when the consultants sought to conduct interviews! Still on shared commitment, I saw an organization’s Management show scant commitment, on account of the CEO being “busy”.
Fourth: organizations should never see the process as a task for only staff of Strategy, Corporate Planning, Corporate Transformation (or by whatever name called) and external consultants. Encouraging this view is akin to an airline allowing the pilot to determine his route because he would be measured against the number of miles flown! Therefore, it is worth reiterating that documenting and executing strategy is the duty of all employees.
Fifth: organizations should not “file off” the plan among documents in the CEO’s office or in the Board Room. A strategic plan should be taken as a “live document”, constantly subjected to reviews in line with competitive levers, operating environment, economic conditions, etc. It is not a trophy to be displayed in a shelf for public affirmation; it should act as a charter for current and future plans, and sustainable existence.
Further, the organization should be wary of “quantitative obsession”, meaning management’s excessive focus on variance analysis and figures, in managing the strategic plan.
Whereas I agree that a strategy without measurable targets is watery, I also know that excessive focus on them is counter-productive. When management becomes figure-fixated, it loses track of important qualitative issues, such as strategic fit, current and future capacity, operating environment, competition, staff welfare, etc. Hence, a balance should be maintained between figure-monitoring and softer themes, without necessarily permitting poor performance.
Seventh: a strategy should include deliverables and milestones with officers responsible for milestones identified. There is no better affirmation of the saying that a task for whom everybody is responsible is bound to fail, than in strategic planning. When responsibilities are clearly indicated, finger-pointing, acting the laggard, and other undesirable outcomes, are avoidable.
Eighth: ‘momentum of enthusiasm’ should be maintained. This means that the level of commitment at the start of the process should be maintained through execution. There are instances where employees thundered: “Oh, consultants would not let us work”, “Those consultants should go away with their troubles” when being engaged in the course of the strategic planning process of their organization.
A suggested tip to avoid this pitfall is to have structured meetings to review deliverables. Such review meetings should not exceed fortnightly cycle, in order not to lose steam and focus.
Another tip is to convince employees that although client meetings, conference calls, business dinners, etc are important, these activities cannot occur if the organization did not exist, hence, they should execute their deliverables promptly.
A third tip is to create an incentive around execution. It may include recognition at meetings, issuance of letter of commendation, attribution in internal publications or intranet.
Ninth: organizations should entrench their strategy in the minds of their employees. This is not advocated as a way of ‘showing off’ or being ‘trendy’, but in a very objective consideration for goal congruence.
On the issue of entrenching strategy, cases abound where amongst senior management, a simple enquiry about the strategy, strategic objectives, or strategic thrust of the organization elicited as many diverse responses as are the number of respondents! How such organizations seek to execute their strategy may likely remain a mirage.
The tenth: and arguably the most important challenge in strategy/strategic planning, is execution! A clear oxymoron!
Experience has shown that organizations write beautiful strategic plans, with colorful phrases, highfalutin words, couched in attractive power-point slides; but the plans are either not executed or executed very poorly.
Strategy, as easy as it is to pronounce and flaunt, is a difficult area of organizational management. Often times, enthusiasm and commitment levels from Management and employees rise and wane intermittently. Hence, strategic planning should be put at the core of the organization’s business, management of people and other resources, corporate governance, and the organization’s fidelity to stakeholders, including government, regulators, customers, suppliers, host community, and the general public.
Unlike the “once-upon-a-time” fate that befell themes such as ‘Total Quality Management, ‘lean manufacturing’, ‘Six Sigma’, ‘personnel management’, in Nigeria, any forward-looking organization should never trivialize strategy and strategic planning in terms of organization-wide commitment and shared sense of urgency and execution. To do otherwise could engender sheer waste of scarce resources of time, energy and funding.
. Ahmed, a strategy expert with years of senior management experience in consulting, commercial banking and FMCG, is the General Manager/Group Head Business Development at BUA Group.