Why Strategic Plans Fail – and Why They Don’t Have To

In a word: “Implementation.”

Now, as an old-time radio personality used to say, for the rest of the story.

There have been a slew of articles and talks recently raising questions about the efficacy of strategic plans, planning, and planners. As one whose livelihood has included strategy planning in the private, nonprofit, and now the foundation and philanthropy sectors, I have to say that I concur with the skepticism, but disagree that failure is inevitable.

It is not at all uncommon to be contracted to help with a strategy issue and discover that other planners have been there before. In many cases, beautifully crafted plans, filled with charts, power points, and eloquent jargon sit gathering dust in someone’s office with nothing to show for the effort and dollars. Why? A few of the generic reasons for failure:

1. Pre-determined outcomes. The client told the strategy planner what result they expected before beginning. And, yes, there are many in the field who are comfortable delivering that message. It may make the CEO happy to be vindicated by an “outside” expert, but not surprisingly, little new strategy and few new directions emerge from a pre-determined outcome. Many of us, me included, will not take such contracts, but I understand those who do: if a CEO hires them, the CEO is the client and, unless otherwise agreed upon, it is her/his approval that matters. One can readily imagine that few others in the organization have much confidence in such a study, and have few incentives to embrace it, but the consultant will have done what the client asked and paid for.

2. Too few stakeholders. In developing a strategic direction, there is no magic number of those who should have a say. However, it is important to make sure that those who have to endorse it and those who have to implement it are involved early on. It need not and in most cases cannot include every possible individual, but the process must have credibility to the key stakeholders if its conclusions are to be taken seriously. If not addressed early in the process, or if an organization chooses to automatically discount or exclude key stakeholders, the credibility, will be suspect and thus the ultimate implementation will likely fail.

A related example is an unwillingness to include outside stakeholders. In one case, an organization simply believed its own hype and tried to develop strategies from the misperceptions of their own self-image. Reluctantly, at my insistence, they went kicking and screaming to see their competition. They were shocked by the degree to which others had simply outpaced them in the quality and effectiveness in what they did. I was by no means their first strategy planner but I was the first who insisted that their stakeholder list include a broader range of input. [This story has a good ending, but any further details would necessarily identify the client.]

3. All too often plans are too abstract and/or don’t include an understanding of the culture which pervades an organization. When I was recruited by one of the large well-known strategy groups 20+ years ago, our discussions diverged when I expressed my commitment to implementation and the inclusion of corporate culture within the strategy. At that time, less so today, the response was unequivocal: we do strategy; it is up to the client to implement it. To understand the importance of this, all one has to do is look at the long list of failed corporate mergers over the years. Pure strategy made them look like a slam-dunk; real cultural differences made them an air ball.

4. The new plan is too far reaching. When I was heading a foundation, we partnered with many other foundations in support of new and innovative ideas. In one case, one of the partner foundations felt that a boutique program we were jointly funding was too good and should be brought to scale. A planning consultant was hired who produced a textbook plan for how a small and promising organization can be ramped up to have a national reach. The plan was elegant and thorough. However, it didn’t account for two crucial realities: there was no internal competence or commitment to such a massive re-make, and by becoming a new national player, it became vulnerable to larger full service competitors. The plan was too far reaching. The organization closed within a year.

5. The plan is not ambitious enough. The flip side of this kind of thinking is a strategy plan that is too cautious, barely incremental, and does not compel any kind of change at all. It should be remembered that any planning or evaluation process is, by definition, an intervention. There is nothing wrong if a serious strategy planning process reveals that an organization is at the top of their game and the most respected in what they do. [Wouldn’t that be nice?] However, it is hard to imagine an organization that is excellent across the board, or doesn’t need to anticipate changes in demography or utilization patterns, or need to enhance professional and board succession. A plan needs to be reaching enough to get even star performers to consider how to respond to tomorrow’s challenges.

6. Lack of an Implementation Plan. Change doesn’t just happen, it rarely happens smoothly, and it becomes chaotic without a plan. Now, in the current discourse, there is room for disruptive change; indeed I myself have been contracted to “disrupt” so that an organization’s stasis is shaken up sufficiently to begin to hear and see things differently. But once that has begun and a new direction is set, it needs management of the agreed upon changes. As suggested in #3 above, implementation is not simply a listing of what has to be done. It needs to have a mix of short-term victories, mid-term targets, and emerging long term changes. Change needs to account for the inevitable, and sometimes legitimate, pockets of résistance. It needs to recognize the style of decision-making and power. And it needs to be sufficiently adaptive to adjust to efforts that simply missed the mark even if the longer-term goals are valid. Finally, change needs to have a shepherd – preferably with appropriate authority or status – who “gets it” and is able to manage this complex process.

7. An Orphan Process. Transitions within an organization can create an orphan planning process. Turnover among professionals and volunteer leadership is normal. Since any planning process takes time, the planning facilitator may be working at an agreed upon pace but those who owned the process are no longer there. It happens! In this context, it is not surprising to find that reports are prepared, submitted, acknowledged, paid for, and shelved. It is possible to pre-empt this dynamic if the caveats of #2 above are followed, but it isn’t guaranteed. After all, does a new CEO want to start out by endorsing the vision and change processes determined by a predecessor? Rarely.

The cautionary tales are clear. But good strategy can and does happen. Avoiding these 7 pitfalls ups the chances for success. And saves a good chunk of wasted time and money along the way.

Richard Marker teaches and advises funders from around the world through both the NYU Academy for Grantmaking and Funder Education and the Wise Philanthropy Institute, both of which he founded. His blog can be found at Wise Philanthropy.