How To Make A Strategy Succeed
Scott Edinger Senior Contributor
I write about strategy, leadership and revenue growth.
This is the season when many organizations are planning and preparing for the year ahead and the years beyond. Strategic planning sessions and Executive Team retreats are in full swing, with teams developing programs and implementation plans that will, with the right approach, help direct their organizations mindfully and productively.
I was reminded of the importance of this kind of enterprise and some of the tenets of making it effective during my work with the Cleveland HeartLab, a biomedical diagnostic lab that sprang from the Cleveland Clinic.
They are in high-growth mode, having just received a new round of funding because of their unique ability to identify the true risk of a heart attack or stroke. Our work together provided a rare opportunity for the Senior Team to take a moment to lift their heads from the daily and hourly management of the business, and stop to think about what was important for the coming year. Here are some keys we used to make strategic planning effective.
It begins with trust and candor. Designing strategies and making plans as a team doesn’t work if leaders can’t or won’t speak their mind. If leaders aren’t transparent with the information you are using to plan and make decisions, then you build a strategy on incomplete information and points of view. At the start of our session each leader privately gave the group a candor score from 1-10, with 1 being no candor at all and 10 being pure transparency, even if it is blunt. We looked at the aggregate score—which was quite high—and discussed the implications of being anything less than 10. That discussion raised the level of candor in the room even higher.
Getting alignment on clear definitions of success is paramount. It’s harder than it sounds, too, to get a group of leaders to share the same vision of success on a given topic. I’m not just talking about listing a topic like, “maintain a high-quality lab” or “expand the sales organization.” You need to get granular and answer questions like, “In a year from now we will be successful if_________ ,” or “What does success look like?” Your answers ought to be specific and observable if not measurable. This clarity will ensure everyone is looking in the same direction.
Accountability makes the strategy go. It is amazing to watch the level of engagement of leaders when they have accountability for formulating and executing strategy. Assigning roles and responsibility is critical for each element of your strategy. There is incredible power in putting someone’s name in ink next to a topic on the flipchart.
Get away. You don’t have to go to a resort. We used a conference room at a neighboring company. What was important was that we had no other distractions and the issues that came up could be dealt with during breaks as we had the key decision makers in one place. Getting away also allowed us to have some meals together and celebrate a few of the company successes. We were still having productive conversations well into the evening over dinner.
Identify the critical issues to achieving your strategy. Just because you write it on a flipchart or present it in PowerPoint does not make it so. You don’t achieve your strategic intent by declaration. Make sure you can list the critical issues that need to be addressed in order for the strategy to be effective. And of course, don’t forget the accountabilities.
Stay out of the weeds but don’t ignore the details. This is a hard balance to strike. You inevitably have digressions when all the key leaders are in one place because of the interdependence of so many functions. Those digressions can be healthy and useful, particularly when they involve topics and details that impact the main discussion. But sooner rather than later, your facilitator needs to be responsible for getting and staying on track or you won’t complete your objectives for the session.
It’s not over when it’s over. Just because your event is over does not mean that the strategy work can sit on a shelf until next year. If strategy is an “event,” then by its very nature it will fail. Strategy is organic in that it continues to evolve and guide the daily work and decisions of an organization. Implementing strategy is the pivotal role of the senior executive, and refining and working with your department and teams to create detailed action plans at the divisional level is what will ultimately bring that strategy to life.
The Cleveland HeartLab has many things going for them: strong funding, a new management team, and a great product. But they also realize that there are plenty of organizations with a lot going for them that don’t meet their objectives. It is a clear strategy, well executed, that makes the difference. Follow these tenets for making your strategic planning process fruitful, and you will reap the rewards of a strategy that guides effectively.