Ideas around strategy and planning should be crucial to most organizations, but somehow over time these terms have become buzzwords. I guess this shouldn’t entirely surprise us. Other words that should mean something — like innovation, entrepreneurship, engagement, etc. — have also morphed into buzzwords over time. Then, of course, there’s my favorite: work-life balance. Somehow a concept meant to mean “Organizations have expectations, but also realize human beings with real lives work for them” became a buzzword over time. Sad. Even more sad when you consider it should be a strategic advantage for companies.
I don’t need to write a lot on strategy and planning. I’ve done a few of these puppies before — for example, this little ditty on why most strategic plans aren’t that great. (And speaking of buzzword terms, here’s one on why your “road map” probably isn’t leading you anywhere.)
Let’s start by discussing a few numbers, then go into reasons, then try to fix it. Ready? Set? Hike.
The sad strategy and planning numbers
Here’s an article from Harvard Business Review entitled “Stop Letting Quarterly Numbers Dictate Your Strategy.” Amen. Hillary Clinton was even discussing this during her campaign. She obviously didn’t win, and not sure she would have actually been able to change anything, but … quarterly returns murder strategy and preference myopia. We all know this, but it’s really hard to change it.
If you read through this article, there are a couple of interesting points made. Here’s one that’s a bit sad: 95% of employees at most mid-size to large companies don’t understand the strategy of the company. Hmmm. And apparently, per McKinsey, only 21% of Board of Directors members understand the company’s strategy either. This all ties with some previous research: 67 percent of CEO direct reports can’t name the CEO’s key priorities or strategy.
Take those three data points. You can take them with a grain of salt, sure (as with any set of data). But think about where they intersect. Essentially, strategy and planning might be happening — not even sure — but if it is happening, no one seems to know where it ended up. Huh?
Why did this happen?
Easy answer No. 1: People get advanced at companies for two reasons. The first is execution, and the second is relationships with the existing power core. Those things typically don’t require long-term thinking, which is what strategy and planning are. As a result, as people rise up a chain and need to own these topics, they don’t really know where to begin. They’d rather focus on execution, because that got them here.
Easy answer No. 2: Communication in the workplace is really bad at most companies. So maybe a CEO or CFO set strategy and planning priorities, but forgot that crucial step whereby you tell other people what the hell is happening.
More complex answer: A lot of guys that come to run companies think “strategy” means “make a lot of money,” which is actually quite flawed. Strategy and planning are complex topics that involve people, psychology, personalities, products, services, margins, etc. Oftentimes, we reduce them to very simple documents hoarded by the executive levels. When you take a complex topic and try to simplify and control it, usually the end result is a lot of confusion and aimlessness and anger. Another example would be “how many countries deal with abortion,” etc.
What do most companies do about strategy and planning?
Typically, they do what they usually do:
- Assign someone trusted by the upper ranks to “own” it
- Slap as much as possible on spreadsheets that can be tracked and analyzed
Nothing wrong with these two approaches, per se. Projects need owners, and outcomes need to be recorded and analyzed. But a few points are perhaps being missed.
What points are being missed?
Off the top of my dome, here are a few:
- How exactly was this strategy set? Was it just from the senior levels or did other levels/silos have some voice?
- What is the plan for communicating this strategy down the chain?
- Where’s the alignment between this strategy and people’s day-to-day execution-level work?
- If people’s responsibilities are going to change as a result of this new strategy and planning, who will tell them that?
- How is this all tied to the mission and vision of the company?
- Where are the analysis points — i.e. how will people know if this is successful?
- Who are the best contacts for someone with questions about the strategy and planning?
I could make that bulleted list go on for 15-20 more points. You see the drill. We often create strategy and planning in an executive-level vacuum, and in some ways, that’s rational and makes total sense. But often the execution of it leaves a lot of people in the dark about what’s going on or what they should be doing. That’s reflected in the numbers above.
Can we get better about strategy and planning?
Yep. But it’s a little bit tough. Here are a few things to initially consider.
Reduction in silos: Silos have no place in modern business. Functional skills are great, but teams need to work together. All silos do is slow down decision-making and increase frustration. It also allows everyone to re-contextualize priorities as “This is what my team does,” as opposed to “This is good for the company, which will be good for me.” (Well, you’d hope.)
Only hire when there is a real reason to hire: One of the most pervasive myths in business is “We are so understaffed.” This comes about because the manager of the team feels very busy, so they assume everyone else is busy. In reality, 4 of their 10 direct reports might surf Facebook all day. They hire No. 11 and now 5 in 11 do that. Unclear job roles hit the bottom line hard and make legit execution of strategy and planning a big challenge.
Rein in the executives and the buzzwords: Senior leaders should be out making deals and relationships and then updating people on priorities and developments. They shouldn’t be ICs (they become micro-managers) and shouldn’t just be seen at all-hands meetings where they say “strategy” 141 times with no real meaning. Just be real and say “Hey, this was a good quarter because…” or “We got hit in the face this time around, so…”
Set priorities, align people, re-organize: At most places, once someone is in “product marketing” or “HR,” that’s it. They are there. That’s their thing. But that concept is static, and business is dynamic. You need to put people where they’ll hit the most targets for you, and sometimes that’s not where they were hired. This stuff needs to be more fluid, which means it probably needs to leave process-laden HR.
The strategy and planning bottom line
This is how you develop your business, your revenues, your people, and everything else. You set strategy. You plan around that strategy. There are pivots. All this happens. It’s business.
At too many places, people have no clue what’s happening with strategy and planning (see stats above). In too many situations, those are buzzwords executives can toss about at a meeting — and really mean “Me and my lieutenants have a plan for fatter bonuses via releasing more products.” This stuff cannot be meaningless. We’re at a time where so, so, so many people are feeling left behind or disengaged at work. And when you see stats around 95% of employees having no idea re: strategy and planning, you can’t help but understand why.