Why The Transition from Strategic Planning to Operational Execution Fails: And How to Make it Work

briefcase-planning-business-strategy-execution[su_dropcap style=”flat”]S[/su_dropcap]TRATEGIC PLANNING… the genesis of an organization’s long term life. Operational execution…the bane of an organization’s existence.

Strategic planning, it’s good stuff. Boards expect it, C-Suite execs want it and if done well, a good strategic plan can lay out a clear path forward as to who and what and organization wants to be. Doing a strategic plan makes you “feel good”, like you’ve accomplished something…”see, I’ve got a plan”. The CEO talks about the plan at employee meetings and reassures them that “yep, we got a plan”. Then you have the guy sitting back in the corner listening to the CEO talk up the strategic plan and says to no one in particular…”Ok chief, hear you, got it, so what does this plan mean to me and what’s my role in this thing?”. He never hears an answer to his question. Everything goes on as it always has, nothing changes and the CEO has gone on to other pressing issues.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Why does the Board and C-Suite focus so much leadership time and attention on building their “strategic plan” if they don’t commit the leadership time and attention to building and executing an operating plan that will give them the opportunity to achieve their strategic plan? Why do Boards and C-suite execs complain “why aren’t we making progress on our strategic plan” when they donsky-building-city’t invest the time and resources to make it happen? Unfortunately, this behavior is the rule rather than the exception. A 1999 Fortune article, in a cover story of prominent CEO failures, concluded that the emphasis placed on strategy and vision created a mistaken belief that the right strategy was all that was needed to succeed. The authors concluded that “…in the majority of cases—we estimate 70 percent—the real problem isn’t [bad strategy]…it’s bad execution.” Even as late as 2015, success in execution remains elusive, according to HBR.

“We have met the enemy and he is us”

So who is the culprit here? To answer that question, the Board/C-Suite has to look no farther than the face they see in the mirror when they look at it…as cartoonist Walt Kelly wrote in his famous Pogo strip “We have met the enemy and he is us”. The failure to operationalize a strategic plan is a failure of leadership, plain and simple. You can’t create a strategic plan and expect it to magically happen. It takes leadership commitment, focus, and determination across the board to transition an organization from a strategic plan to an operational plan to actual operational execution. It’s a process that pushes the company forward towards accomplishing their strategic goals and ensures success.

What can the C-Suite do to operationalize their strategic plan?

It all starts with the CEO and his leadership team understanding and accepting that operationalizing the strategic plan is a long-term process that is evolutionary, not revolutionary; that it needs to be done regularly as a precursor to developing the annual budget, always keeping the company’s strategic plan as the source document. Building and executing the operational plan requires the CEO and his leadership team’s consistent and continual focus, commitment and leadership effort for the long haul and that isn’t easy in today’s business environment. And, there has to be a willingness to accept that mistakes will be made…no one does it perfectly.

Key point here… operationalizing the strategic plan is a collaborative process that engenders commitment and focus by all employees to building and executing the operational plan that will drive the company forward. The CEO and his leadership team’s role is providing the leadership, the framework, structure, process and accountability, to make it happen, creating a collaborative environment and the communication connection with all employees to ensure every employee understands their role in the execution of the operational plan, how it impacts them, and how their contribution will be measured. It is everyone’s responsibility to make certain the work being done is singularly focused on executing the operational plan. Any work that doesn’t support the operational plan ought not to be done.

A process for developing an operating plan


Before the budget cycle

A key element in setting the stage for building a budget that supports the operational plan is the CEO defining, in writing, i.e., the “CEO’s Intent” to every member of the organization. This document lays out what he/she wants to achieve for the upcoming budget cycle, using the operational plan as a foundation for the budget, prioritizing work and initiatives in such a way that ensure sufficient resources and funding for critical work. The CEO needs to ensure the work and initiatives tie back to the strategic plan. When developing the “CEO’s Intent” it’s important to lay out specific expectations of budget year accomplishments which could include financial, leadership, employee, technology, facilities, etc. objectives.

Executing the Plan

Operationalizing the strategic plan is it a collaborative process and the CEO can’t do it alone. Chances are the CEO doesn’t have either the time or inclination to manage a disciplined process, so consider using the talent in the organization, outside the C-Suite, to lead in the execution of the initiatives identified in the operational plan. Not only does this take the burden off the CEO, but is an outstanding chance to recognize and create visibility for operational talent deeper in the organization. What is important is that the individual have unlimited access to the CEO, and direction from the CEO. The responsibility becomes facilitating the progress of the plan through tracking and assisting project leaders in carrying out their charge within the defined scope and timeline. Creating a forum where project leaders report on progress sets up peer-based accountability.

One of the big challenges of having a formal operating plan and executing it is that it does add work to existing staff responsibilities. This may be stressful for some, and it will be important to keep the vision alive to generate energy and excitement. It is also important that the CEO/C-Suite celebrate every success or completion, no matter how small, to create momentum, and review the process to ensure they know why it succeeded or failed, in order to have a repeatable process.

Moving Forward

OK, so now you have operationalized your strategic plan, you have a budget tied to your operating plan, and you have someone in charge of administering the plan so what do you do next? Good question. You know where you’re going but you need to know when you get there. The only way you will know if you’ve got there is to have progress reviews on a regular and consistent schedule with the team where you measure progress against the metrics established. If metrics aren’t being met, ask why…get to the root cause of the problem. This is where the CEO’s leadership is so important…keeping everyone’s focus on executing the operating plan, communicating where things are going well, where things aren’t going well and holding people accountable for fixing the problems.

Do you really want to execute well?

Leadership, discipline and consistency drive success. Successful execution of your strategic plan requires a focused CEO who is commits to leadership, discipline and consistency. If you operationalize your strategic plan and have the determination and focus to execute it effectively, you will meet the strategic plan objectives.



Joe Anderson
Joe Anderson
JOE is a partner at Anderson Performance Partners LLC , a certified woman/veteran-owned business, working with organizations to facilitate problem solving through workforce energy and innovation. He is a retired Marine Officer and a seasoned senior business executive with more than 30 years leadership experience as a senior business executive in several Fortune 500 companies and as a business owner.

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