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Feb 22 2023
Executable Strategic Plans?


The well-known Balanced Scorecard experts, Norton and Kaplan, have written a lot about the fact that most strategic plans are not fully executed.  Like many strategic planning experts, they focus on what it takes to execute effectively, and recommend establishing a formal process for execution, engaging leadership in the process, and even having a group or "office" devoted to execution of strategic plans. These are all key recommendations, and they align with principles one could also derive from change management, culture change, systematic performance improvement, and other disciplines devoted to moving whole organizations forward toward goals.

An issue that they, among others, do not seem to address in depth is that both the processes and the products of strategic planning vary greatly among different practitioners and organizations.  A simple Google search for descriptions or definitions of strategic planning, strategic objectives, and even strategy will reveal that people use these words differently. And they have different guidelines and criteria for what constitutes a good strategic plan.  Look up examples of strategic objectives and you will find a mix of outcomes, activities, and abstractions that may or may not be easy to verify. Often planners and those who execute plans rely on the measures chosen to accompany strategic plans for verification and monitoring of progress toward success. But in some ways, this is too late in the planning process. Can we make strategic plans themselves easier to execute?

Dr. Peter Dams, trained as a behavior scientist, has been helping organizations create and implement strategic plans for several decades. Peter has also become a Certified Performance Thinking Practitioner, and has been looking at his own work from the perspective of accomplishment-based performance improvement. Over the last several years he has refined his process, and the plans that he helps clients create, based on insights he has gained from Performance Thinking.

Much of the implementation challenge can be addressed more effectively by using the Six Boxes Model as a systemic framework to enable people in the organization to do what they must do, and to achieve what they must achieve, to implement strategic plans. But there is more to it than that.

As he and Carl Binder, CEO of The Performance Thinking Network, have worked together, they were struck by the possibility that execution of strategic plans could be approached by analogy to Design For Manufacturing. In the 1970s and 1980s, manufacturers who had long struggled with the challenge of optimizing the cost and quality of manufacturing by changing the design of things to be manufactured, made important advances in an approach that has now become widespread. In recent years, Tesla, the automobile manufacturer, has made news by radically changing how cars are designed, to make the manufacturing process simpler, with fewer separate parts and less cost for assembly and testing. Why not think of strategic planning with this in mind? Maybe it's the strategic plan itself that can be improved, not just the implementation process.

With a key insight from Performance Thinking, Peter has made a huge step forward in his work with clients. The idea is simple. Just as we can make the process of improving human performance more straightforward and leaner by insisting on definitions of performance anchored to accomplishments, or work outputs, Peter has learned that insisting on strategic objectives as accomplishments can improve execution.

As those who have learned about Performance Thinking know, we anchor our performance improvement work in accomplishments, or what we call work outputs: things that can be described as "countable nouns." If we identify a  widget, or document, or relationship, or decision as a thing that can be counted, and specify characteristics that make that thing "good," we can more easily identify the behavior or activity needed to produce it, who must be involved, and how we need to support that behavior. It turns out that if we insist that strategic objectives be defined as accomplishments, described as countable nouns that have clearly agreed-upon criteria for "good," then we can more easily develop tactical plans and milestones to achieve those objectives.

While Peter also works with clients to create plans for execution, to monitor progress, and to engage leaders in the process, it is perhaps this simple shift to accomplishment-based strategic planning that set the stage for the innovations he has developed in the last few years.

You can check it out yourself. Look for examples of strategic objectives to see how many of them are described as clear, countable "things" or accomplishments. You will probably find a mix. To use a real case example, is it easier to tell if you have been successful when a strategic objective is expressed as "Investigate whether we should build a second runway at our regional airport" or as "Decision whether to build a second runway at our regional airport"? You be the judge.


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