The Five Biggest Mistakes In Strategic Plans That Even The Pros Make
Mistake 1: The Strategic Plan Is Not Concrete
Strategic plans have been subject to a host of critique. They are ridiculed for their dust-gathering character. They are assumed inappropriate for strategy in a complex and uncertain world.
And, along the famous quote by Dwight D. Eisenhower that "Plans are nothing; planning is everything," they are also dismissed categorically.
Yet, strategic plans prevail. Companies make them and sure do consultancies make them. I make them too. And it is even a key part of my job as strategy consultant, and one of the most, if not the most important deliverable to my clients.
Strategic plans prevail for a reason. Done well, they are excellent devices to guide and direct an organization’s strategy for the next couple of years. Indeed, when done well. And that is where things go wrong.
Many strategic plans are not done so well at all. Throughout my career as researcher and as consultant, I have seen hundreds of them. And in many cases, I was left wondering what I just read after going through them. Below, I summarize the five biggest mistakes that people, also pros like consultants, make when writing strategic plans.
Mistake 1: The Strategic Plan Is Not Concrete
The first mistake found is that the strategic plan lacks clarity and concreteness. Many plans that I have seen are rather fluffy pieces of text using abstract “strategy speak” and general figures and trends.
But they never spell out concretely what the actual strategy is that the organization envisions. As a result, they leave the reader wondering what is exactly meant with all the impressive words.
Lack of concreteness is a common problem in strategy.
As referred to in an earlier article, one of the reasons may be that concreteness comes with responsibility: when you clearly spell out where you want to go in the next couple of years, this creates a responsibility to actually go for it, and an accountability for your results or lack thereof. Some may not like that and prefer to keep their plans vague.
Others argue that a strategy must be high-level and abstract by definition. Because, as soon as it becomes concrete, we have moved to the tactical and operational level. This does not make sense.
While a strategy concerns an organization’s overall direction toward the future, this direction can be written down in very concrete language. And when you want your strategic plan to be effective at all, it needs to be concrete.
Mistake 2: The Strategic Plan Is Not Distinctive
Being concrete is not enough. A good strategic plan is also distinctive. I don’t mean distinctive compared to the competition. That is needed too, but that is related to the strategy itself, not to how it is written down in the plan. With “distinctive” I mean that the plan clearly spells how the new strategy is different from what the organization is already doing today.
This is essential. As research on strategy execution shows, a frequent problem is that the new strategy is reinterpreted in terms of the old ways of working.
Furthermore, due their confirmation bias, people generally look for what they expect and see only what confirms what they already know. As a result, when reading the plan, many may ask: what’s new, isn’t this what we are doing already?
To avoid this, you need to spell out the difference for them. You need to point out where and how the new strategy deviates from the previous strategy or from what the organization is doing today.
Being concrete helps, because when you are concrete about your strategy, it is relatively easy to also explain how it is distinct from today.
Mistake 3: The Strategic Plan is Not Coherent
The third mistake that I see in strategic plans is that they lack coherence. They contain a lot of different ideas that may be useful in themselves, but that don’t add up to a coherent whole. Or, at least, it is not shown how these various elements fit together. The result is feeling lost and overwhelmed when reading the plan.
Strategy is complex. It needs to be because it weaves together the many things an organization does and tries to capture all of that into a concrete and distinctive direction for the organization.
But strategy needs to be simple as well in order for people to understand it. Creating a simple strategy by dumbing things down or by capturing the strategy in highly abstract phrases or soundbites doesn’t work—doing so just reinforces Mistake 1.
The main way to simplify is to make sure that the strategy is a coherent whole. This means that the various chapters and sections of the plan fit together. This makes people see how, despite the many things addressed, the strategy does add up to something they understand.
Mistake 4: The Strategic Plan Is Not Convincing
When the previous three mistakes are resolved, people can grasp what is meant, see how it is different from today, and understand how it all fits together. Compared to the average plan, this is a substantial step forward. And should writing the strategic plan itself be the main goal, then it would be enough.
But this is never the main goal—or at least it shouldn’t. At their core, strategic plans are written for one key reason: change.
They describe where an organization should be going the next couple of years and aim at a change in people’s mindsets and behaviors, so that the formulated strategy is actually executed. This means that strategic plans should convince people of the importance and meaning of the strategy and why certain choices are made and not others.
Accordingly, a good strategic plan reads like an essay, with a clear plot, beginning, structure, and end. And like a good essay, a good strategic plan is written with the reader in mind and takes the reader from one step to the other in a natural, logical way. Only in that way can it convince the reader that the strategy is the right way to go.
Mistake 5: The Strategic Plan Is Not Actionable
Once the previous four mistakes have been resolved, there is a pretty advanced strategic plan. However, there is one last mistake that I too often have seen in strategic plans: the lack of a clear action-orientation.
As remarked under Mistake 4, strategic plans are written to realize change in people’s mindsets and behaviors. This means that they need to drive action—they need to show people what needs to be done in order to execute the strategy.
Otherwise, there is a great strategy that everyone may understand and even subscribe to, but leaving the question of “and now what?” open.
Actionable doesn’t mean that the plan should contain a detailed project planning for the next three to five years. Such planning is usually far too rigid and outdated before it has been written.
But, actionable does mean that the plan clearly spells out what is needed in order to realize the strategy effectively, for example in a roadmap. This includes at least defining what it will take in terms of resources and people, and what main actions or interventions are needed.
When these five mistakes are avoided, there is a strategic plan that is concrete, distinctive, coherent, convincing, and actionable. It is such type of strategic plans that can live up to the decades-long high expectations there are about a written strategy.
Such a strategic plan is a valuable device that can provide an organization with focus and direction for the next couple of years.
This applies also in highly dynamic contexts. While the actual strategy reflected in the plan may be partially outdated soon, the plan reflects a shared point of reference. It helps making clear what it is that is changing and how the organization is going to deviate from its previously intended path.
Bringing in the same quote once again, it is this what general Eisenhower referred to when saying “Plans are nothing; planning is everything."
Dr Jeroen Kraaijenbrink is an accomplished strategy educator, speaker, writer and consultant with over two decades of experience bridging academia and industry. Drawing from cognitive psychology, humanism, Saint Benedict, and a wide range of other sources, he is the author of numerous articles on strategy, sustainability and personal leadership and five books: Strategy Consulting, No More Bananas, Unlearning Strategy, and the two-volume practical guide to strategy The Strategy Handbook. He is an active Forbes contributor where he writes about strategy, leadership and how to embrace the complexity and uncertainty of this world. Jeroen has a PhD in industrial management, teaches strategy at the University of Amsterdam Business School, and has helped many midsized and larger companies across the engineering, manufacturing, healthcare and financial services industries.