Many years ago, my mother initiated what has since become an annual family tradition.

When my father was about to reach his 70th birthday (he’s closing in on 90 now!), she decided we should gather siblings and families, and all spend a weekend together to celebrate. But where? What kind of place? There are thousands of options.

After some discussion, we agreed on two guiding criteria: It needed to be reachable by a reasonable drive, and we needed to be able to play tennis there. Over the years, that simple “vision” has remained, keeping us focused and narrowing the options greatly.

This same kind of approach works well in developing a successful business strategy. It’s not everything, by any means. But by starting with a clear vision of what matters most to your organization, you, too, can greatly simplify the process on the way to achieving your goals.

Unfortunately, many organizations (despite best intentions) struggle in the development of their strategic plans. There are any number of underlying causes for this, but here are three that I come across most frequently.

1. Not Enough Detail

I’ve often seen organizations start with a very broad vision statement — something that, in my family’s example earlier, would be similar to “a weekend family getaway.” While this does provide some idea of what is valued, there is not enough specificity to narrow the options and know whether or not you are headed in the right direction. (Volkswagen once stumbled in this way when it set out to become “the largest car company in the world.”)

So, there needs to be clarity on the key elements that constitute success.

Consider the example of a former client of mine, the University of North Dakota. Most universities have similar assets and do similar things. UND was no exception. How could it differentiate itself in a way that highlighted its priorities, attracting the “right” students as a result?

The answer was by identifying and describing a few critical goals at a high level that it could hang its (figurative) hat on. Guided by a clear and simple statement of purpose, this came down to seven goals in three categories, specific enough — but simple enough — that they could all fit onto a folded card the size of two standard business cards.

Of course, we developed more specific, measurable goals and action steps that added definition and specific guidance on how to clearly define success. But having the driving purpose and high-level goals clear and always present (the president kept a copy in his pocket at all times) helped keep everyone on the same path.

2. Too Much Detail

Many companies develop a strategic plan that can best be described as “a list of goals and bullet points.”

In these cases, the goals are stated in very general terms (e.g., “improve customer service,” “make X services financially sustainable for the long term”) and the bullet points are no more than a list of tactical steps, sometimes accompanied by a name and a target date of completion. In the worst of cases, these include steps like “conducting a survey,” which suggests the necessary work of assessing the issue has not yet been done.

This approach is a recipe for failure… or, at best, inaction. If you have 10 tactics but only accomplish five, is that good enough? What if the five accomplished do not include any of the critical, “tennis court” goals? With so much detail, how will your people know which day-to-day decisions are moving the organization in the right direction?

The point is, while goals and tactics are important, without the clarity and direction that comes from connecting them to a clear vision, this laundry list approach to strategic planning is just a glorified to-do list.

3. Poor Communication

I once heard a story about Boston Beer founder, Jim Koch, who was asked by a colleague why he shared his strategy with his entire organization, and said, “What if they know your strategy, and they leave?” Koch is reported to have replied, “What if they don’t know our strategy, and they stay?”

Many organizations consider their strategic plan to be a top-secret document, only to be shared at certain levels. This is a mistake. Successful execution of strategy requires that your entire team understands what you are trying to accomplish, what is critically important, and (equally vital) what is not.

After all, the point of all this strategic work is implementation, not explanation. When my siblings and I consider where to go each summer, our shared clarity regarding tennis courts and driving time is the lens through which decisions are made.

Reflections

Though the process of developing an effective strategy can be complex at times — depending on your organization’s capabilities, the environment it operates in, and various external forces and trends — in the end, it’s not strategy itself but your organization’s ability to execute it that marks the difference between success and failure.

The core priorities need to be simple enough, clear enough, and communicated across all levels of your organization, so that everyone understands what is most important and how to prioritize among possible, alternative actions.

© 2021 HORWITZ & COMPANY, LLC

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