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Execution Pitfalls: Why Strategic Plans Don’t Get Executed

By Michael Wilkinson, CMF
Managing Director, Leadership Strategies, Inc.

“How do I move this plan from paper to execution?”

So asks the CEO of a medium-size service organization. He is frustrated. His organization is nearing the completion of the second year of a three-year strategic plan and is preparing to hold the annual update retreat to review progress and make adjustments for the third year.

When his leadership team completed the plan two years ago, most of the senior leaders were excited about having a clearly defined direction that would position the organization for long-term success. But at the first update last year, it was clear that the plan was barely looked at over the 12 months. While some of the initiatives had been implemented, many had been completely ignored. They all agreed to do a better job of making the plan a “living document.”

But this past year was much like the first, with little focus on the strategy. The organization made its revenue and profitability targets by implementing tactical ways to work harder and cut costs. But it was no better positioned for the future then it was 12 months before. With another strategy retreat just a month away, the CEO had concerns about his ability to focus the organization on executing the strategic plan.

Why is it so hard to get a plan executed? While there are several reasons execution doesn’t happen, here are four primary execution pitfalls we have found.

The Urgency Principle

Many plans fall victim to what I call the urgency principle which is derived from Stephen Covey’s urgency versus importance matrix. In most organizations, it is easy to focus on responding to what’s clamoring for our attention (urgent but not necessarily important) or get caught up in the crisis-of-the-day (important and urgent). But since strategic plan initiatives typically fall into Covey’s quadrant 2 (important but not urgent), the strategic plan takes a back seat to responding to the needs of the moment – the urgency principle.

Infrequent Review 

Management gurus learned long ago: that which is measured, improves. Unfortunately, all too often, we don’t go back to the plan until it’s time for the update, 12 months later. When a lack of review gets combined with the urgency principle, it is easy to see how strategies ripe for execution can die on the vine due to lack of attention.

Lack of Alignment

While some plans fall victim to the urgency principle or infrequent review, other plans suffer from a different organization dynamic. Dr. Jay Galbraith from the Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California and author of Designing Organizations: An Executive Guide to Strategy, Structure and Process, describes the dynamic this way, “Too many organizations have tomorrow’s strategy, today’s structure and yesterday’s reward systems.” In essence, we try to implement a strategy without a) aligning our organization to achieve it or b) restructuring our reward systems to support it. Like a car that is out of alignment, until we correct the underlying problem, we will naturally flow off course.

Lack of Accountability

Infrequent review and lack of alignment often support a fourth major cause of strategy execution issues – lack of accountability. “We have to all do better at…” is often a classic response heard when individual accountability is lacking. When people are asked to give an account for their actions, or lack thereof, and when there are positive or negative consequences related to their results, a stronger focus on execution is typically the result.

Which execution pitfall is challenging your organization? If yours is like most, it is a combination of these and maybe others. Look for upcoming articles on overcoming the common execution pitfalls.

Contact us at 800-824-2850 for assistance with your strategic plan.

Michael Wilkinson is the Managing Director of Leadership Strategies – The Facilitation Company and author of  The Secrets of Facilitation. He is a Certified Master Facilitator and a much sought after strategic planning facilitator and speaker.