We’re entering the Season of Possibilities.
It’s the time period between Labor Day and mid-December when effective executives assemble their senior leaders to begin focused discussions about their organization’s future.
Having led nearly 250 strategic planning sessions in a range of industries for companies and not-for-profit organizations, I’ve identified four fundamental components of planning. Strategic planning should provide a structured way for senior leaders to talk openly about issues, events and scenarios that can occur in the future and bring significant change to your organization, and these four components are at the heart of an effective planning session.
Warning: Missteps in any of these four components will turn your Season of Possibilities into your Winter of Discontent.
Here are four guidelines for avoiding missteps so that you and your team can convert your possibilities into realities.
I usually limit planning sessions to two back-to-back days, and I work to keep the process simple. Execution is challenging enough without over-complicating the planning process.
To achieve the outcomes you want from your next planning session, be sure to answer these four deceptively simple questions:
Failure to achieve clarity on the answers means #accountability will be an uphill battle and performance will suffer.
Let’s take each question in order.
Exuberant leaders are often so eager to begin building the plan, they skip this fundamental first step.
The faulty thinking is a belief that Everyone already knows where we are.
Indeed, while each participant in the session may have a clear idea of how they see the current situation, my experience is that this view is rarely shared unanimously—if it’s shared at all. Like the six blind men describing the elephant, each person has a slightly different view of the situation. It’s why I start each session with some type of an assessment that allows each person the opportunity to share with their colleagues their view of the organization’s current performance. Agreement on the current situation is essential to understand what problems and opportunities to pursue.
When your purpose, expectations and rewards lack clarity, you’ll be aiming at a moving target. It’s all well and good to say “We aspire to be the industry standard for excellence,” but without specific measures to indicate exactly what excellence looks, sounds and feels like—and what success means to everyone in the organization—the likelihood of achieving your vision is slim. Or at least a lot more difficult.
Your plan is your organization’s roadmap toward success. A good portion of the planning process should be designed to discuss, debate and then develop activities to address the barriers—real or imagined—that stand in the way of the organization moving from Point A to Point B. Once the priorities have been determined and the activity for achieving them agreed upon, each action item requires a champion, a deadline and an objective measure to indicate the action item has, in fact, been attained.
Many times, the rewards of achieving the plan have been addressed while all too often the question of underperformance is skirted. Lack of clarity about how to address under-performance is the single greatest barrier to improving your performance. How will underperformance be addressed?
While interviewing leaders of some of the world’s most admired companies for my book Accountability: The Key to Driving a High-Performance Culture, a senior executive told me, “The hardest thing about accountability is consistent performance evaluation. If you are not consistent with how you’re communicating expectations or you’re not consistent in evaluating performance, it will tear down the fabric of your culture.”
Ten years ago I wrote a blog that’s still the most-searched blog I’ve written and the one that’s downloaded the most. Why Bother? The 10 Benefits of Planning.
Here are the top three benefits of planning:
Achieves alignment among your leadership team – Bringing your leadership team together to plan provides every participant with an equal opportunity to provide their perspective on critical issues, organizational priorities and the future vision of the company. Lack of alignment among the leadership team will, at the least, hold back your organization and, at worst, kill it.
Uncovers new ideas and new or improved revenue streams – Value is determined outside your organization. If you can’t answer “Why us?” don’t expect the market to know. Use the planning process to identify or confirm your core competency and examine the value the market places on it.
Establishes accountability – Leaders I’ve worked with agree there’s generally no shortage of ideas during the planning process. What’s usually missing is follow-through and a lack of accountability. What guarantee do I have that this plan will work? they ask me. None, if there’s no buy-in from the leadership team. None, if the company—starting at the top—is unwilling or unable to change. None, if there’s no discipline and performance is not tracked. A plan is your written contract that establishes—and drives—accountability.
This season is brimming with possibilities. When the season is over, it’s all about results.
To dive even deeper into the topic of accountability, I invite you to purchase a copy of my bestselling book, “Accountability: The Key to Driving a High-Performance Culture.”
Business schools teach case studies. Hollywood blockbusters are inspired by true events.
Exceptional leaders are students of history. Decision-making comes with the territory.