Six Reasons Strategic Plans Fail

Ed BurghardHowever beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.

Winston Churchill

With every new calendar year typically comes a comprehensive review of your strategic plan. The intent of the review is to ensure the strategies and tactics selected are still the best choices moving forward, and make certain the organization action plans are designed to deliver against those choices.

Choice is perhaps the most challenging aspect of a strategic plan. Too many finished plans are simply a hodgepodge list of what can be done, not necessarily a clearly thought through and prioritized list of what should be done.

6 Watch-Outs

There are six things I would encourage you to consider as you go through the strategic planning exercise.

Prioritization – Poor prioritization is a killer. You are doomed before you even start if you cannot clearly define the priorities for your organization’s success. Effective prioritization requires bringing the resources required to complete critical path tasks on time and in the appropriate sequence. This is where using a project planning software tool can be exceptionally helpful (as long as the tool isn’t too complicated and too hard to learn). Frequent and truthful communication between members in your organization is important. I added the word ‘truthful’, because it has been my experience that people tend to be reluctant to ask for help and as a consequence may be over optimistic in their ability to hit the performance milestones. This behavior results in project crises that are often tough to manage, and may have been averted all together if the team communication were objective.

Level of Detail – The worst strategic plans are those that remain on a shelf and have no impact on the day-to-day investment choices. Good strategic plans have sufficient detail that you can objectively evaluate progress and probability of success. They answer tow fundamental questions – 1) Where should we play? and 2) How will we win? The objectives and strategies chosen need to be expressed numerically as well through goals and measures respectively.

Alignment between Strategies and Culture – Choices that may be effective, but are counter-culture, will never be properly executed and as a consequence will be the weak link in your strategic plan’s ability to deliver desired results. Communication is the vital element when a cultural change is required for success. You may want to use a model called “The Cultural Web” to peel the onion back and understand why your organization does what it does. Armed with this insight, you can create a management approach to help the people in your organization step outside their comfort zones and improve the odds of success that they will deliver the results you need.

Accountability – Strategic plans need to be thought through to the Action Plan level. It is important to know who is going to do what by when. There is a good, short blog post in CIO Magazine that speaks to the importance of teams holding each other accountable for delivering quality work. Single point accountability that comes with +/- consequences helps avoid the pointing fingers syndrome that is not helpful to team cohesiveness and ultimately increases the risk of failure. It has been my experience that investing time to discuss who is accountable for what helps establish proper expectations. It also allows people to share concerns regarding their ability and/or resources to deliver the results required for success. It is so much easier to address shortages in these areas up-front rather than in process. It also gives you a chance to make changes to the strategic plan if something you thought was possible turns out not to be probable after deeper discussion.

Transparency in Decision Making – No plan is ever exactly right when it is authored. All plans are created with a forecast of future events and need to be flexible enough to be altered as things change. Alterations may have impacts on cost, timing and/or level of achievement. Many times these decisions need to be made by organization leaders rather than team members. As a Director, one of my greatest frustrations was when a team excluded me from making project decisions that I could have materially impacted either by my personal experience or the ability of my level to access resources they assumed were simply out-of-reach. Many times, organizational policies may be involves and failure to have the right person on your organization make the decision creates political or legal risk. One of my favorite models to ensure transparency in decision making is the RACI Model.

Clarity of Goals and Strategies – There is a skill to authoring goals and strategies that are easy to understand by everybody in the organization. Even if a strategic choice is right, if people have multiple interpretations of what it really means there will be multiple directions to the actual execution. Often, this means well intended people will create execution chaos and yet feel like they are doing things correctly. This results in inefficiency and risks the on-time under-budget achievement of the goal. Here is a good article on writing goals and strategies using the FLIP method.  Make certain you read the section on the SMART model as well.


Strategic plans are only effective if they are used. Too often the strategic planning process becomes an annual right of passage, but once the document is aligned it gets put in a file and is not routinely visited. One of my colleagues once told me that strategic planning is worthless because it is hard enough to forecast what will happen tomorrow let alone years from now. On one level he is right. If a strategic plan is created and not visited frequently or used to guide investment choices, it is useless. But, a strategic plan (like a Google map) is intended to be used and adjusted if things change. When this doesn’t happen, the problem isn’t necessarily with the Plan, but rather with the deployment process. The other challenge is that small organizations often feel they can operate without a strategic plan, or that the time it takes to create one is a waste of time for them. I believe otherwise. It has been my experience that, regardless of the size of an organization, it is always cheaper and better to fail on paper than in the market.

For community branding, I think every community regardless of size should have a minimum 10-year strategic plan in place to guide their economic development. The challenge is that political timeframes tend to be measured in 4-year increments, so plans from one Administration have a hard time surviving the transition to a new Administration (even if it is the same political party). The solution, in my opinion, is for the private sector business leaders to lead the strategic planning process in communities. These leaders are used to long time horizon plans and have a vested interest in seeing choices on assets creation, infrastructure investment and public policy reform executed as planned. If you are an economic development professional, it is a good test to evaluate how deeply involved private sector leaders are in the strategic planning, review and deployment process. Lack of leadership involvement greatly increases the risk of failure.

Your Thoughts?

Please leave a comment with any perspective or questions you might have. I am eager to hear and learn from you.

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