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Five ways to make and execute a great plan

It is all about execution.

Waiting over a year to see results is too long, since your chance of mid-course correction is greatly reduced.  To make the point, Harvard’s Robert Kaplan believes that less than 10% of corporate strategies are effectively executed.  Ouch!

If that is true, we are tolerant bunch.

We carefully plan in long, dedicated sessions each year or so, then draw up a series of goals, strategies, tactics, objectives, targets, or whatever we want to name them.  We hold all-company meetings where possible, and departmental meetings to roll out the new plan.

We set individual objectives and rewards to match these goals.  Then we manage day-to-day routine execution, and periodically measure the results.

Does this process sound familiar? 

This is the description of a well-managed process within what should be a well-managed company.

And yet, Kaplan is close to right, whether it’s 10% or 30%, it is a minority of strategies that are effectively executed.  Why?

Here is your list of five things to do as a guide to better execution.

[Email readers, continue here…]

  1. Make the plan simple to understand. Once deployed down one or more levels in the organization, like the old game of telephone, the corporate plan begins to look less like the original as each department attempts to adopt it and create departmental objectives to conform.  A complex plan stacks the deck against all but those who created it at the top.
  2. Put someone in charge of executing the plan. That may be you, but in some companies, that requires a dedicated individual tasked with removing roadblocks, measuring success, and reporting progress.
  3. Provide feedback loops at each critical stage of execution. If the plan calls for increased revenues, measure output and efficiency as well as revenues.  Look for leading, not lagging indicators of change.
  4. Make sure you provide the resources necessary to hit the plan, including money, new hire authorizations, and above all, clear instruction and delegation form the top.
  5. Listen to complaints, suggestions and warning signs. Respond, so that people know you are serious about execution of the plan.  Modify what is not working.  Then pivot, when necessary, to scrap part of the plan, and then rewrite it to meet its objectives.

So, you could become one of the top 10% of planners.

If a plan has realistic goals and if you are reasonably able to provide the resources necessary to complete the plan successfully, you are way ahead of that other 90% estimated by Harvard’s Professor Kaplan..

But if you toss a plan out to others to execute, don’t follow through until the end, fail to measure, or to provide needed resources, then you will deserve your fate.  So, take heed.  If you go to the effort to plan, go to the effort to succeed.

  • Michael O'Daniel

    I would add a couple more steps. And BTW actively soliciting and acting upon feedback, and reporting the steps taken in response to the feedback, is indeed critical and, Bravo! for including that in two different configurations (Provide feedback loops, Listen to complaints etc.).

    What any plan or project also needs are:

    1. An ongoing communications process so that everyone affected is kept apprised of milestones reached or not reached, and the gaps that still need to be closed to reach the milestones. This is also a good time to ask for additional feedback, e.g. we thought we were on the right path, but we’re coming up short, so how can we correct that?

    A broad-based communications process is important. Even if responsibility for the plan or project only dwells within one department, if you step back and look at your overall organizational structure, you’ll recognize that there are other departments affected as well. So it’s important to keep them in the loop.

    2. A “gated process,” meaning that until one step of the plan has been completed, and signed off on by whoever is charged with doing so, no one has permission to advance to the next step until the current step has been successfully completed. And the accent is on “successfully” rather than merely “completed.” For example, training is a particular area where completion often takes precedence over success. “Yeah, we completed the training, here’s the manual,” instead of “Here’s what our trainees knew previously, and here’s what [this percentage of them] they know now, here are the gaps that still need to be closed, and here’s how we’re going to do that.”

    The gated process is necessary to keep the plan or the project on the right path toward success. A common temptation is to say “We didn’t quite complete that step, but we’ve got to move on, so we’ll come back and fix it later.” And then guess what? It never gets fixed. Plan or project deadlines can and should be adjusted to ensure successful completion of each step rather than trying to meet a deadline just for the sake of meeting the deadline. The challenge is to balance the urgency of meeting an often artificial deadline with the measured approach to making the plan or project a success.

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