The 3 main reasons why strategic plans fail

“The company strategy… Yes, I think I heard something about that a few months ago. I don’t
really know what the status of that is. Actually, with the high inflation rate and all the
changes we had to make in our supply chain recently, it probably isn’t really realistic
anymore. I’m sure someone will take a look at it soon, but I have lots of work to do.”

Most organisations have a strategic process in place. Whether they use OKR, OGSM, X-
Matrix or some other system – there’s usually some kind of schematic overview of objectives
and strategies that gets at least an annual update. However, if you ask employees of a
random major organisation to tell you something about the strategy, you’d hear something
like the quote above a lot more often than you should.

The point of setting goals and using KPIs to measure performance is clear: it tells you where
to improve and whether what you’re doing is working. However, goal-setting isn’t the same
as goal-achieving. Things can go seriously off track in the process. Here’s some of the most
common mishaps – and how to prevent them so your organisation achieves more goals.

Pitfall 1: Zombie plans

One major and extremely common problem is that strategic plans turn into ‘zombie’ plans:
they don’t get monitored or updated. Slowly but surely, what started out as an enthusiastic
effort to clarify the organisation’s ambitions and take big steps towards their realisation,
disappears from view and into a drawer. In his bestseller Measure what Matters (p. 81-82),
John Doerr gives a good example of why that happens:

“In 2014, when Bill Pence came to AOL as global chief technology officer, top-line company
and division goals were presented on a spreadsheet and rolled down from there. “But they
never really had a home, where they connected on a daily basis with people,” Pence says.
Without frequent status updates, goals slide into irrelevance; the gap between plan and
reality widens by the day. At quarter’s end (or worse, year’s end), we’re left with zombie
OKRs, on-paper whats and hows devoid of life or meaning.”

This is why it’s so important to keep your strategic plan alive by using a shared platform for
strategic execution. Everybody in the organisation should know how they contribute to the
strategy and progress needs to be tracked in a transparent way. There are dedicated tools
for that, like OGSM or OKR software. Other organisations try to monitor their strategies in
Word, PowerPoint or Excel. But there are some serious problems with that…

Pitfall 2: Scaling strategy with MS Office

The main problem with using traditional tools like Microsoft Word, PowerPoint and Excel to
manage a strategic plan is that they don’t scale. It’s basically impossible to keep a small
number of strategic documents up to date with hundreds or even thousands of employees
contributing to the results. In John Doerr’s book on OKR, we find this tale of woe that
perfectly illustrates this problem:

“When a Fortune 500 company tried to ramp up its goal-setting cadence, it hit a wall. All of
its 82,000 contributors had dutifully recorded their annual objectives in Microsoft Word files!
A move to quarterly OKRs would have generated 328,000 files per year. They’d all be public,
in theory, but who would have the patience to search out connections or alignment? If you
share a goal that nobody sees, is the system truly transparent?”

This is no way of working that suits a twenty-first century company. To make relevant
information and data available as soon as possible, it’s essential to invest in a system that
eliminates the need to call or e-mail up and down the management chain. People shouldn’t
have to look through hundreds of pages of Word files or overwhelming Excel databases to
find out how they can contribute to the strategy. They need greater autonomy and effective
methods of lateral collaboration.

For many organisations, this justifies the business case for cloud-based OKR/OGSM software.
Such a shared platform allows team members to view and update the progress of strategic
initiatives using a Kanban board, a Gantt chart or a goal tree. This enables you to actually
scale your strategy in a way that’s workable for everyone. It’s also far less prone to mistakes
that result from copy-pasting, or to altering data to show results in a more favourable light.

Pitfall 3: Apathy and disengagement

Daniel Pink’s book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us is based on a range
of relevant reseach on employee engagement and motivation. Noting the value of a clear
strategic plan in OKR, the book explains that “contributors are most engaged when they can
actually see how their work contributes to the company’s success. Quarter to quarter, day to
day, they look for tangible measures of their achievement. Extrinsic rewards—the year-end
bonus check—merely validate what they already know. OKRs speak to something more
powerful, the intrinsic value of the work itself.” (p. 79)

Apathy and disengagement are a major danger to the success of any strategic plan. Why do
goals and strategies fail to connect to people? There can be many different reasons. This
question can be approached through the lens of Krauthammer’s questions for behavioural
change. Can they do it, do they want to, and do they see the point?

People may not engage with a strategic plan because they’re not empowered to do
so. Without a shared platform to track results and engage with the strategy, and
without clear ownership of goals and strategic initiatives, a strategy may become a
meaningless abstraction to them. That’s why organisations should make sure to
equip their employees with the tools they need to work on strategy execution

People may also just not care about a strategic plan. If a company only pursues
growth and market share expansion for its own sake, without offering a sense of
meaning to the people who create that growth, it’s going to be hard to tap into the
intrinsic motivation of employees. People want to see how they contribute to the
company’s success, and that success should be defined in a way that is meaningful to
them! If, on the other hand, a strategic plan isn’t inspiring and realistic, the result tends
to be that people disengage from it. Employee engagement can be increased
by stimulating creativity. For example, some organisations have instituted a ROWE
(“Results-Only Work Environment”) banishing micro-management and allowing
employees more freedom in finding their best way to reach goals.

Finally, people sometimes might disengage from a strategic plan because they don’t
see the value of it. This brings us back to the question of transparency. If goals aren’t
reached year after year, and there hasn’t been any management response to that
failure, staff might have a difficult time understanding why these annual plans are
even made. Doerr gives the example of AOL, where “…CEO Tim Armstrong felt the
company’s goals were “too disconnected,” Bill Pence recalls. “They weren’t linked
together; they didn’t cascade up and down. They just didn’t stay tethered to the
employees and the work they were doing through the year.” Only when a strategic
plan is cascaded across the organisation in a coherent way, people will feel driven to
contribute to it. A transparent and real-time platform for strategy execution is a
necessity for such a high level of coordination.

Conclusion: achieve more goals with a strategy execution platform

We’ve seen that it’s easier to make a strategy than it is to execute it. To avoid the most
common pitfalls, the central lesson is that strategy needs a platform, a place to live, where
people throughout the organisation can engage with it. That requires more than a shiny
PowerPoint presentation, monthly reports, or a massive data dump in an Excel sheet. To
really make strategy execution a success – whether you use OKR, OGSM, Lean X-Matrix or
another comparable framework – you need a way to get everyone involved and link their
everyday work to the strategy in a transparent way.

One excellent solution that’s specifically designed for these strategic frameworks is OGSM
. This is a cloud-based tool for strategy execution that helps organisations around
the world achieve more goals. You can try it for free: just follow the link and click “Try now
for free” – no credit card required.

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