It’s a common scenario: visionary, out of the box thinking; a great plan; an impressive deck with lots of charts and infographics. Heads nodding. Thumbs up from the board. Broad assurances from the management team. Big communications push. Updates to the website and intranet. A few town hall meetings. Then bit by bit the whole grand plan begins to lose steam. The presentations get filed, the binder goes on the shelf, the digital content begins to stale, the weekly emails fizzle to one every few weeks, then disappear altogether. The rush of activity slows to a trickle, things settle down and everyone gets back to their real jobs.

This is the fog of strategy – the organizational delusion, bewilderment and paralysis that occurs when strategic planning meets reality.

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We’ve all seen it. The strategic plan that never really gets off the ground. The corporate equivalent of the New Year’s resolution to join a gym, eat better and lose weight. The commitment and resolve are pretty much gone by the time the gun sounds to end the BSC Championship game. It’s no different at the management

table. The Norton-Kaplan estimate that 70 – 90% of strategic plans fail at the implementation stage is well-known. And yet every year, organizations everywhere spend thousands of hours and millions of dollars on strategic planning. As sure as spring follows winter, the cyclebegins again. Same process. Same results.

So why do we keep slamming our heads against the wall in the hope that this time it will be different?

Volumes and volumes and volumes have been written about strategy and the strategic planning process. For every new theory and its accompanying New York Times best seller, blog post, tweet and LinkedIn update there are a dozen consultants at the door with a new approach, a fancy deck and a brief case full of case studies to prove it. Every one claims to have the Da Vinci code for unlocking strategic forces that will suddenly transform years of organizational chaos into a laser focus of clarity and commitment.

A strategic plan is simply a way to link what an organization wants to do, what it realistically can do and what customers actually expect it to do with solutions that deliver required financial results.

But strategy isn’t all that complex or difficult. After all, a strategic plan is simply a way to link what an organization wants to do, what it realistically can do and what customers actually expect it to do with solutions that deliver required financial results. It’s the proper alignment of vision, operations, brand, finance and all the requisite support functions.

In my experience as a consultant, head of strategic planning and member of executive leadership teams, the fog of strategy develops because at least one of the following symptoms exists within the organization.

  1. The organization does not know where it is going or what it wants to do. Successful strategy is dependent on clarity – a crystal clear, unambiguous, unshakable declaration of where the organization is headed. Lack of vision leads to uncertainty, conflict and confusion. In this environment urgent displaces important; financials become objectives rather than outcomes; priorities clash and strategic initiatives become “programs of the month” to be resisted or ignored. If you’re going to make a big deal about your strategy (and you should), then it’s imperative that everyone in the organization — up, down and across — knows exactly what the future will look like, what has to change, what the priorities are, who is responsible and how they are going to be evaluated. Employees should be able to connect the dots between the strategic plan and what they do every day. If they can’t – they’re working on the wrong things or they are confused. Either way, it’s up to management to fix it.
  2. The organization does not have the resources, capacity or the capabilities (or access to them) to match the objective. Execution requires capital, talent, expertise, process and infrastructure (not necessarily in that order). Doesn’t matter if you’re talking about enterprise, business unit, brand, marketing, IT or HR — even the most brilliant strategy falls apart when overly optimistic decision-makers underestimate what it’s going to take and overestimate the availability of people, dollars and skills. A detailed review of what is needed and an objective assessment of what is available must be part of the planning process – not a hurried and clumsy afterthought once the light has turned green.
  3. The strategic plan disregards the brand-customer relationship and marginalizes the customer experience. This ensures the strategy is at odds with what core customers want and expect from the brand. (Not a good idea). Despite paying lip service to the needs of the customer, it’s surprising how frequently decision makers are willing to risk brand dilution and customer alienation in pursuit of new strategic possibilities. They downplay the impact of an off-brand initiative and seriously overestimate the upside. Not only does it confuse and anger customers, it frustrates and demotivates the front-line employees who have to deal with them. That doesn’t mean organizations can’t enter new markets, launch new products, pursue new customer segments or try something bold or out of the box. It does mean that the strategic planners must carefully consider the long-term implications for every aspect of the brand and customer experience before committing to any strategic direction or initiative.
  4. Silos, turf protection and organizational in-fighting create resistance and divert resources from strategic initiatives. Heads may nod around the management table and create an illusion of alignment but beneath the surface of cultural cordiality swirls the undercurrent of dissent and protectionism. Once the meeting is over, the whispered backroom discussions determine the real agenda. Corporate politics are a fact of life and vigorous debate is essential to good strategy and good management. However, like contestants on a reality TV show, leaders who ignore the closed door conversations, hallway alliances, petty gamesmanship and internal posturing may realize too late that their strategic agenda has been defeated from the inside by the very people commissioned to implement it: we have seen the enemy and it is us.

Addressing these four symptoms early in the planning process reduces the potential for getting lost in the fog.

Of course every organization is different and every strategic plan has a unique set of challenges that make implementation difficult. Given the failure rate of strategy implementation it is obvious that the fog of strategy is nearly pandemic across the corporate spectrum. However, addressing these four symptoms early in the planning process reduces the potential for getting lost in the fog.

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