Mind the (Logical) Gap—Strategic Planning Part 2

Most employees can’t make good strategic choices about how best to spend their time. The best employees will try to devise ways to increase their value to the enterprise. But without being able to refer to a clear strategic plan, they are only guessing.

Of course, they know how their work is measured–the targets they must hit. But what about the strategy and how they fit into it? Not likely. That makes weighing options—or inventing new ways to add value—almost impossible.

I hear endless frustration from my CEO clients about this issue—that their employees don’t get “it”. But how do you correct that?

In part 1 of this (now) 3-article series, I talked at length about the critical conversation left out of most strategic planning: The question of the strategic hypothesis.

That is the thing about us (your company) as a product or service that is so desirable and unique that customers will choose us over other options.

But even if you have done that work to distill that unfair advantage into a clear statement, there are many more obstacles between that and a strategic plan that gets the job done.

Remember, the job of the strategic plan is to massively increase the odds of achieving your very improbable goal.

Connecting Strategy to Action

It’s one thing to devise a brilliant strategic theory and then craft a complex plan to exploit it. Millions of terabytes are full of such plans created by everyone from corporate boards to government agencies to McKinsey.

But a brilliant plan that is not easily executable is worthless to the team who will actually execute it–your employees.

Teams can’t execute a plan that they don’t understand or know how to operationalize. [Click to tweet this thought]
That is a problem.

If only those who are in the strategic planning retreat understand the thinking, then only they can make smart choices between competing priorities or find new ways to add value.

Immense amounts of potential progress are lost when only one or two people have that ability.
This is both a content and form problem.

The Content Problem

Content problem #1:

What is your strategic theory?

That was the subject of article 1 in this series.
But even for those few who do that hard work, they remain stuck with a content problem.

Content challenge #2:

What are the logical connections between between the unfair advantage (strategic theory) and operations?

If the strategic plan fails to connect theory to action, it leaves a cognitive gap. The content must include both the strategic theory, AND the logical connections between it and specific initiatives.
A strategy lacking those explicit connections doesn’t dictate any actions. And fundamentally, only the right actions will drive the desired outcomes. So, without those connections spelled out, the plan is essentially un-executable.
The team may be beavering away, obediently taking orders or following up on existing projects, but they are not adding their full complement of value.
Without the strategic theory, and its explicit implications for actions, they have little choice than simply to do the same thing they have always done. And as many well trod old saws tell us, if you keep doing the same things, you will keep getting the same results.

The Form Problem

Consider an organization of 100 people.  Twelve of them are in the room to create the strategy.  If the other 88 members of the team are going to be able to make those important strategic choices—they must know what went on in that room.

A town hall will help. The team will learn a bit from the 50- slide PowerPoint.

  • But will they see themselves in that presentation?
  • Will they understand the ways they can create value or compound their current contribution?
  • Will they reference it over and over, throughout the ensuing months —or see in it their own need for training and coaching?   

Most of them will not.

Strategy By Fiat Fails

In the early 2000s, IBM saw computer hardware becoming commoditized. So, Steve Ballmer (then CEO) decided to shift its strategy away from hardware to AI and business services. But their hardware engineers and sales reps didn’t really get it. They didn’t understand the problem or how the new strategy meant to solve it. They couldn’t really connect to any of it.

Without the context—and relevant training –the workforce took years to grasp and embrace the strategy. IBM languished, working on Watson’s Jeopardy parlor trick, while Google and Apple raced ahead with Siri and Google Assistant. Estimates suggest as much as $5b in value was lost between 2010 when Azure launched and 2018 when it caught up to AWS.
Telling people the strategy isn’t enough. They must learn it and find themselves within it.

And to do that, the strategy must be accessible.

A 50-slide PowerPoint, or a 100-page document, is inaccessible. So is a massive report on the findings of the SWOT analysis.

Articulating strategy is challenging.

Ultimately, following its formal roll out, it needs to live in a document. But the document must do a lot of heavy lifting.

  • It must include the key measurable goals that everyone is focused on achieving.
  • It MUST include the strategic theory as a central theme.
  • It must establish the logical connection of theory to action.
  • It must be accessible.

But even that is not enough.

A strategic plan is a theory of how to crack the code of your seemingly impossible goal.

To ensure that you have really increased your odds of success, it needs more than logic and accessibility.

It needs testability.

  • Is the theory valid?
  • Are the logical connections the right ones?  

Ultimately, the strategic plan must be a very special document that is:

  1. Accessible
  2. Logical
  3. Actionable
  4. Measurable
  5. Testable

The Right Form

This Goldilocks strategic plan sounds like a chimera. It should explain the strategic theory –AND the connection between that theory and major initiatives.

It should be easily accessible and intuitive.

Plus, we want it to easily lend itself to testing strategic validity, progress, and the internal logic.

That’s a lot!

But if we had such a document then every employee, whether an engineer, an intern, a designer, or recruiter would be able to understand how they, individually, drive the strategy. They could easily compound their value, or invent new projects that would accelerate the pace of progress.

There are lots of models that inform strategic planning. But there are very few models with which to articulate a plan.

Most organizations use something like a text document or a slide deck. Or they just roll out OKRs and KPIs. Maybe they use the metaphor of what our “Big Rocks” are. But, when you apply the 5-trait lens, none of those deliver. The one that I use in my own consulting (and have for 25+ years) does.  

In the next article we explore that magical model.

But, until then, ask yourself whether your own approach fulfills those criteria. If it does, PLEASE share it with me.

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