Rewriting your strategic plan every few years may be costing you a lot more than you think!

Posted by on Apr 18, 2011

How often are you rewriting your strategic plan, and why?

In my first decade of guiding the creation of strategic plans, I was often called to help clients re-do their plans every 3 or 4 years. At the time, neither I nor my clients were aware of any reason why organizing strategic plans in one way would be any better than another. In the absence of a reason to do otherwise, these plans were organized around strategic themes chosen by the client teams.

By the time we renewed these strategies a few years later, the themes around which the original strategy was organized had often lost their luster. Clients wanted a fresh set of organizing themes to renew focus and spark interest. This meant reconfiguring everything in the plan, and sometimes the organizational processes and structure, to fit a new set of strategic themes, and still without a strong underlying rationale.

What’s good for consultants isn’t always good for their clients

This was good for my revenue, but in retrospect, not so good for my clients. For one thing, it took longer to make plans this way, and too much time was consumed in creative writing rather than making strategic decisions! And with each “renewal”, people outside the planning team but critical to implementation success had to sit through the introduction of a “new plan” that contained many of the same ideas, but presented in a new format. I’m sure some must have wondered why their leaders rehashed the same basic ideas and tried to sell them as “new”. I’m equally sure it did little to inspire their confidence in the “new” plans.

Certainly, clients benefited from their plans, but in view of the evident confusion that resulted when plans were renewed around a new set of strategic themes, I began looking for a theory or a set of principles about the way written plans are organized.

An experiment – align the strategy with the business model

I couldn’t find any references to help with this problem, and I remain unaware of any today. But in 1996 I saw and began experimenting with “strategy mapping”, a concept that first appeared in The Balanced Scorecard. Through experience I discovered that when the architecture of the strategic plan is aligned with the company’s basic business model, plans can be implemented faster, easier and for less money. This makes a huge difference in how soon a plan begins to pay off, and how long the payoff continues. Kaplan and Norton, the creators of The Balanced Scorecard methodology, hadn’t intended strategy mapping for this, but it provided a very clear conceptual model for strategic plan architecture.

One client’s problems clearly illustrate proof of concept


How that learning emerged is quite illustrative of an important principle of innovation – the best ideas often come when you immerse yourself in your clients’ problems.

I was working simultaneously on two Divisional strategies for a large client – one for Marketing, the other for Sales and Customer Service. This client had great success with my old planning methodology, so I agreed to leave this new organizing concept out of the process.  I thought that the benefits of aligning the strategy with the business model were not worth the difficulty of selling the client on the idea.

As they had in previous planning sessions, each team chose its own strategic themes around which to organize their plans.

Towards the end of each team’s planning session, we created a giant Gantt chart on one wall of the planning room to organize key milestones printed on post-its along a timeline and identify interdependencies among initiatives.

As the Gantt chart emerged in the second planning session, it became clear that managing the interdependencies between the two Divisional plans would be a mammoth task, and critical to fast and efficient implementation. Two executives who had participated in both planning sessions suggested we reorganize the written plans to align both Divisions’ efforts around common themes, objectives and business processes. Three of us did this over a weekend, using the basic business model as our guide. We brought the result back to the heads of the two Divisions the following week.

The effect of this reorganization on the Gantt charts for implementation was nothing short of astonishing. Prior to organizing the written plans around the business model, both Gantt charts had so many lines connecting interdependent milestones that they looked like the wiring harness behind the dash of your car! Without this reconfiguration, implementation would have created a bureaucratic nightmare, with committees needing to liaise with other committees before anything could be accomplished.

Alignment simplifies the plan and extends its life


But after aligning the plans with the basic business model, much of this complexity disappeared. We found that the strategy, business processes and organizational structure simply reflected the basic business model, and it suddenly became much more obvious what was important, and how to make it happen.

It was among the most memorable lessons of my career. As is often the case, this lesson was greatly aided by the circumstances. These two Divisions interacted on many of the same key business processes. The harm from failing to align the strategies with the basic business model was brought into sharp focus when we saw how much simpler each Gantt chart became when we re-oriented each strategy around the basic business model.

Since that time, I’ve organized all the strategic plans I’ve worked on around the client organization’s basic business model. As a result, I have clients who have been working with the same basic strategy architecture for up to 10 years, with great success, and with far less need for my services.

When should a strategy be rewritten from a “clean sheet”?


Theoretically, it shouldn’t be necessary to change the basic architecture of a strategy organized around a business model until the business model itself changes. But I had always wondered how long these strategies would last in practice.

Interviewing clients about their experiences during and after the 2008 economic crisis provided the answer.  As I suspected, the plans need to be reconfigured only when the basic business model changes. Crises may require changes in the emphasis or timing of various strategic initiatives, but unless the basic business model changes, the strategic plans can be updated without changing the basic architecture. This allows the existing plan to be updated periodically with new targets, metrics and initiatives, but without altering the high level strategy.

Alignment is one of the keys to multiplying strategic payoff


The benefits of maintaining and building on a consistent strategy are considerable. When the strategy is aligned with the basic business model, aligning the business processes, structure, metrics and reports is far easier. And when the time you spend updating your strategy focuses on making real strategy decisions rather than rewriting all the words to fit new headings, the quality of strategic decisions takes a quantum leap.

Is your strategic plan aligned around your basic business model? If not, you’re missing out on important benefits that will go directly to your bottom line. And you may be wasting time, money and effort rewriting plans that would sustain for many years if properly organized around your basic business model.

Copyright 2011 Knowlan Consulting Group Inc.

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