Implement Strategic Direction with Three Simple Questions

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Organizations often struggle to connect vision to action. I’ve seen it many times in my advising and consulting work. Regularly, organizations take their entire leadership team off to a beautiful, inspiring place—a ski resort in Utah or beachside in the Bahamas—and they spend days or a week coming up with a great strategy. Then when I check in with them a few months or even a year later, I hear that no action has taken place on the vision since that leadership retreat. At best, I might hear a few pieces have been implemented.

There’s a simple, three-step solution that could change that outcome dramatically. I say simple because simple is sustainable. Sustained action driven by strategy is exactly what’s missing in too many organizations.

I often tell people one of the key things I do as a consultant is to roll out simple solutions that create remarkable results. The reason the results are remarkable is because things actually get done. How do I turn strategy into action for the companies I consult with? One key focus is on three steps:

  1. What;
  2. Who; and
  3. When.

Think it can’t be that simple. Let’s break them down.

What? An action plan begins with what is going to be done, described in very specific language. The key here is to break the vision down to tasks of manageable size. I like to call these “meal-sized portions.” If you think about it, a meal is something you can eat and digest in one sitting. It is not like taking in the whole buffet and gorging yourself. At times we all tend to do the equivalent of gorging ourselves at work: we take on too much activity, too many tasks, and too many responsibilities. To reduce the “what” of a strategic vision to a meal-sized portion, think about what can be implemented by one person. If it involves a hand-off between two people, that is two tasks. If it requires presenting something for approval prior to executing it, that’s two tasks since there are interdependencies.

Who? Next, an action plan assigns the “whats” to “whos.” Simply put, who is the person (or group) that will be responsible for implementing an action? Who is going to take the lead, and who are going to be contributors? All too often the “what” is defined but the “who” is not made clear. Without clear assignments, miscommunications and false assumptions arise. It’s too easy for everybody to conclude that someone else is “on it” when in truth, no one is.

When? Finally, an action plan specifies deadlines. Setting due-dates is one of the simplest things we do, in both corporate and personal life, but even so, few people do it well. The biggest mistake I see is setting a deadline date but not interim deadlines for starting, finishing key components, and checking in to make sure multiple assignments are coming together on the needed timeline for the final result.

Planning by the simple formula of “what, who, when”  is simple and sustainable. I recommend incorporating those three components into your planning, and then monitoring progress via implementation meetings. The three questions only work if a project manager carves out 10-15 minutes on a weekly basis for a status update from all concerned. It can be a standing meeting where individuals report their progress, make requests for resources if needed, and experience the expectation that they are accountable for results.

A company in the technology space in Southern California that I advise created a plan at the end of last year using this process. Not surprisingly, they’ve had their best year ever, growing revenues more than 50% along with their highest margin improvement in company history. The CEO was not only proud of their results, but also that the company actually worked their strategic plan from start to finish, for the first time ever in company history.

Your strategic plan shouldn’t be a souvenir from that Utah ski resort or Bahamas beach that you hang on the wall like a piece of art. Your strategic plan should be the genesis of an action plan that describes how the strategy will be successfully implemented.

“What, who, when” is the simplest action plan you could wish for. Fold it into your corporate culture and I promise you will find that every minute, every thought, every ounce of energy invested in strategy pays dividends for months and years to come.

Scott WintripImplement Strategic Direction with Three Simple Questions

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