31 Clues Your Strategic Plan’s Measurement and Execution Will Fail

December 3, 2019 by Stacey Barr

Use this checklist of 31 tangible clues that your strategic plan might be one of the 90% that will fail in execution.

A bridge that goes nowhere. Credit: MikeVanSchoonderwalt

You don’t have to look too hard to discover that strategy execution has terribly high failure rates. For example, Jeroen Kraaijenbrink, in his Forbes.com article, notes that most research points to very high failure rates of strategy execution, and it can be as bad as 90%. He also offers a lot of reasons why strategy execution fails, ranging from communication problems, resource problems, and leadership or management problems.

There are many reasons why strategy execution will fail, but there are some very visible and tangible clues, which can be found in the strategic plan itself. These tangible clues are easy to spot, and are very convincing symptoms of the range of reasons why a strategy will fail.

Do you see any of these clues in your current strategic plan?

Following are all the clues I look out for when I’m reviewing my clients’ strategic plans, before we start using PuMP to develop the strategic measures. If I find a lot of them, I know that we need to allow more time for strategy rework before it will be worth the time and effort to design meaningful measures.

Take a look over your strategic plan, and see if you find any of the 31 clues within these 8 dimensions of a measurable and exectuable strategy:

  1. Depth
  2. Focus
  3. Change
  4. Progress
  5. Structure
  6. Clarity
  7. Alignment
  8. Holism

Does your strategic plan lack depth?

When the strategic plan contains much of the same goals and strategies as previous years, and there is no commentary about where the goals came from, chances are that the thinking behind its creation wasn’t deep enough. It was more like jumping through strategic planning hoops as quickly as possible. You’ll see these tangible clues:

  • [ ] No mention of the industry, competitor, market or internal analysis and their findings.
  • [ ] Goals are very broad or generic in nature.
  • [ ] The same old KPIs or metrics or performance measures are used.
  • [ ] Measures are action-oriented.

To get depth, proper research and current state assessment is needed to find out what really does matter. Even just a basic SWOT analysis will encourage deeper thought about what is strategically important.

Does your strategic plan have enough focus?

Peter Drucker is attributed with the wisdom that the key to strategy is omission. A bloated, wordy strategic plan with lots of goals and strategies is a fair sign that it’s not focused enough. Some tangible clues are:

  • [ ] There are more than 7 strategic goals.
  • [ ] Some strategic goals mention several performance aspects.
  • [ ] The set of strategic goals cover most or all of business operations.
  • [ ] There are lots of actions and initiatives listed.

To get focus, ruthlessly prioritise what should matter most now, can be influenced by the organisation, and will be resourced. In PuMP we ruthlessly prioritise using the ‘should, can, will’ test.

Is your strategic plan about change?

Too many strategic plans are action plans, aimed at getting stuff done or describing business-as-usual operations. But strategy is meant to be about change, not about a bunch of stuff to do. The tangible clues of a business-as-usual strategic plan are:

  • [ ] Some goals are written with words like ‘maintain’ or ‘continue to’, rather than ‘increase’ or ‘decrease’.
  • [ ] Goals are not really about results but about implementing programs and projects.
  • [ ] There are no measures for the strategic goals.
  • [ ] There are no targets attached to measures.

To emphasise change, consider removing all the goals about sustaining business as usual or continuing to meet operational standards, and just leave in the goals about what needs to be improved.

Does your strategic plan have a mechanism for progress?

The success of any strategic plan, its execution included, is based on exactly how much change is expected, and exactly how much change is happening as a consequence of the chosen strategic initiatives. If a strategic plan is just a list of goals and actions, progress is left to subjective opinion. The tangible clues of this include:

  • [ ] There is no mention of current performance baselines for the strategic measures.
  • [ ] Measures are not set with a frequent enough calculation cadence to monitor change throughout the strategy’s timeline.
  • [ ] Targets are included in text, rather than next to their related measures.
  • [ ] Targets are generic, like ‘improve by 10%’.

To make progress clearer, desired or intended change needs to be quantified and tracked through time.

Is your strategic plan designed with a thoughtful structure?

The structure and layout of many strategic plans is more complex than it needs to be, with too many sections, too many layers and often some redundancy. It’s a sign that not enough logical thinking went into the design of the plan, and instead it has been allowed to evolve organically over time. You might see tangible clues like these:

  • [ ] There are strategic themes and then goals and then objectives and then strategies and then actions and then action measures, and so on…
  • [ ] You can’t immediately see which parts of the plan should be measured (is it the goals or the objectives or the results or the strategies?)
  • [ ] It takes more than one page to flesh out the goals and measures and actions for a single strategic theme.
  • [ ] It’s hard to see the logical relationship between and among themes, goals, measures, and actions.

To create a logical structure, come back to the five basic elements that any strategic plan needs, and cull whatever doesn’t serve this structure: strategic themes, strategic goals or objectives, strategic performance measures, performance targets, and improvement initiatives.

Has your strategic plan’s language got enough clarity?

The language used in the vast majority of strategic plans is broad, vague and jargonistic. It’s management-speak or weasel words. Tangible clues that this is your problem also:

  • [ ] Strategic themes are written with just two or three vague words, without a detailed description of what they mean.
  • [ ] Strategic goals or objectives are written with weasel words, like adaptive, efficient, diverse, innovative, strengthened, etc.
  • [ ] Strategic performance measures are expressed vaguely like Customer Advocacy, Sustainability Index, or Productivity, and without descriptions of their calculation method.
  • [ ] When you ask three people what a single goal means, you get at least three different answers.

To achieve clarity, look for weasel words or test the readability of your strategy, and translate it into simple language that a 10-year old could have a hope of understanding.

Does your strategic plan have a logical alignment?

In too many strategic plans, the goals and initiatives are operational rather than directly describing the results implied by the strategic themes. You’ll see these tangible clues:

  • [ ] The strategic plan contains operational goals and actions, not just strategic ones.
  • [ ] Departmental or business unit plans try to align to the corporate strategy by copying the same goals or objectives.
  • [ ] Performance measures don’t provide direct evidence of the goals they sit next to.

To get alignment, a strategy needs to be cascaded via cause-effect logic, and performance measures need to align with that cause-effect flow of goals.

Is the strategic plan unified in a way that creates holism?

The whole is more than the sum of its parts. So, a more powerful strategic plan will tell a single and integrated story about what everyone will focus on for the coming year or so. But too many read more like a linear collection of independent goals that have no obvious link to a unifying story. This manifests in the following tangible clues:

  • [ ] There is no preface or introduction in the strategic plan of the general overarching theme or direction.
  • [ ] It’s not obvious how each strategic goal relates to or impacts on or synergises with the other goals.
  • [ ] When you ask the leadership team to summarise the strategic direction for the coming year or so, it doesn’t flow quickly and clearly (and they might start debating it amongst themselves).
  • [ ] When you ask people how their work contributes to the overall strategy, they stare back at you blankly (or bluff through a weasel-word answer).

To achieve holism, it helps to map out the goals and measures of a strategy, and use the map as an outline to tell the story of the strategy. A Results Map does this perfectly.

You can’t meaningfully measure a poorly designed strategy.

So often my team and I find that one of the biggest hinderances to finding meaningful performance measures is the poor quality of the strategy. Good strategy must come before measures, because without it, there is no focus or framework from which to think critically about what’s worth measuring.

To develop a good strategy, it takes a good process, like this one from Adura Strategy (click on each phase in the wheel to read about each crucial step). And don’t let your strategic plan become one of the 90% that will fail in execution.

Your strategic plan will go nowhere unless it is designed with depth, focus, change, progress, structure, clarity, alignment and holism.
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  1. Yuvarajah Thiagarajah says:

    Thank you Stacey.

    Well captured insights. Being a ENTJ, my thoughts resonate with your. However, over the years, my “Thinking” characteristic slanted towards “Fellings”. That’s because in the journey of trying to fix problems in logical and solution focused fashion, I realized I wasn’t gaining much support. Hence, I began to hone more on emotional intelligence and pace to what or how others feeling in the change and improvement realm.

    Retired and free from having to put up with office politics, I am taking it easy. But, I have a passion to help out with Performance Management.

    I couldn’t agree more that the biggest mistake in that is not having a rigorous measurement in place or worst still, having useless measures. Now, people are talking about ORA’s as if KPIs have become outdated?.

    What’s you take. Is it old wine packed in new bottles or just painted the cat black?

    • Stacey Barr says:

      I think that measurement is a subset of the scientific method, and as far as I’m concerned, the scientific method has never needed to be painted a different colour or packaged differently. So I do get a little bored of, as you say, painting the measurement cat black to freshen it up. But, also as you say, measurement isn’t fully logical so we can never ignore the emotional/feeling side of it. Thusly, as long as we’re helping people with the fundamentals of good measurement (scientific) practice, it shouldn’t matter what it’s called.

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