Deadly Sins of Strategic Planning

A solid, well thought out strategic planning process can form the foundation for long term business success. As a living document, the strategic plan provides guidance on what the organization should be doing to succeed. However, more importantly, it helps leaders decide what the organization should not be doing.  Unfortunately, in many organizations strategic plans are shelf filler, door stops or are forgotten soon after they are completed.  It is curious to me that organizations spend the time and resources to create a strategic plan if they have no capacity to put the plan into action. Boards and leaders need to do a better job partnering in developing and implementing strategy.  It is not an easy task and organizations cannot expect to build and execute a solid strategic plan without a lot of focused effort, open minds and some serious teamwork.

As you may have already guessed, I have a passion for strategy.  I am excited about the potential transformational power generated by the convergence of vision and reality and in translating that power into actionable progressive steps toward an inspired future. I have engaged in the strategic planning process at numerous organizations and have discussed strategy with organizational leaders, board members and participants in strategic planning processes.  Presented here are some of the worst strategic planning mistakes, each with a brief clarifying description, and some best practices to help avoid these issues. This information can help leaders and participants better organize, prepare for and complete strategic plan development and execution.

Deadly Strategic Planning Sins  

Unmanaged Culture Clash – changes called for in the strategic plan are not in alignment with culture of the organization will be very difficult to implement. Culture tends to win out over strategy, but a strategic plan may very well need to drive a change in culture.  This is a chicken and egg situation with lots of conflicting perspectives, but one thing is certain, if your strategic plan requires a significant cultural change, it will be a lot tougher to successfully implement.

Radio Silence – the strategic plan is released and all communication about it ceases.  The plan will certainly fail if this occurs. This can happen when the strategic plan development process was so stressful that everyone needs to “take a break” once the plan document is produced.  This also occurs if the strategic planning process does not include a communications plan component.

Lack of Honesty in Current Situational Assessment – the foundation of a strategic plan is a description of the current state of the organization. You simply cannot know where you are going if you don’t know where you are. The assessment should include competitive, technological, regulatory, financial, operational, and resource assessments, in short, any significant driver of the organization’s performance.  The planning process is more likely to fail if contributors do not provide honest input.

Lack of True Understanding of Competition –  like number three, the strategic plan will likely fail if contributors do not have an adequate understanding of the competitive environment and developing trends. They must also det, strategic indications and trajectories of competitors and disruptors.

Too Short Time Horizon – a strategic plan needs to be the long view.  If your industry has a five to seven-year business cycle, then a three-year strategic plan is really an operating plan and will not prepare your organization for the future.  The opposite is also true. If you are in a technology business that has an extremely short business cycle with lots of disruption potential, then a ten-year strategic plan won’t help.

Limited Involvement (The Overpowering Few) – plans done behind closed doors by senior leaders only are much more likely to fail.  In addition, plans are more likely to fail if there is broader participation that it is controlled or directed by a few senior leaders. This is a particularly deadly strategic sin as input is censored or massaged to fit the leaders’ perspective.  Strategic planning should include representatives from all functions and levels.  Strategic planning is best done when varying perspectives are discussed and integrated. This is a great way to ensure honesty and understanding, as covered in items three and four, above).

“One and Done” Mentality – an organization cannot have one strategic plan forever. Plans tend to fail when they are not refreshed regularly (planning cycle and timing of re-planning will be discussed in a future post). You may think your business is stable, but change is the only constant! Include planned obsolescence in the strategy document and review assumptions periodically to integrate any significant changes or new news.

No Implementation Plan – the biggest deadly strategic plan sin of all.  Is your plan sitting on a shelf gathering dust?  If so, the likely reason is that you did not include an implementation program in your Strategic Planning process.  A completed strategic plan document is only the midpoint of the process and your work isn’t nearly finished yet.  Think of the strategic plan is a destination; then the Implementation Program is the roadmap.

If your implementation plan is simply to do more of what you already do, then your strategic plan was unnecessary.  If you just identify a bunch of metrics in your strategic plan and wait until the end of the next year to check your progress, then you will most likely not have progressed much, if at all. Change rarely happens unless motivated.  The implementation plan is how the plan turns into action.


Strategic Planning Best Practices:  Avoid Falling into Sin! 

Treat the Strategic Plan development as a Project
  • Assign a project manager, tasked to plan and execute
  • Gather input from diverse sources
  • Do a lot of research on yourself, competitors, environmental factors, etc.
  • Check, recheck and re-recheck your assumption (repeat often!)
  • Be honest and realistic, this is not the time for rose-colored glasses or sugar coating
  • Think broad and start with the long view (push out the time horizon)
  • Challenge your creative people to think about risks – not to avoid, but how to consciously manage
  • Encourage your development people to think big – strategy is about game-changing, not necessarily doing more of the same
  • Push your operations people to think about possibilities – what else can you deliver for your clients to satisfy their needs
  • Get your finance people thinking about fiscal sustainability – not just doing more with less, but doing things differently (for less)
  • Consider strategy alignment to culture, be mindful when trying to drive a cultural shift
  • Communicate the plan to all stakeholders (repeat periodically and robustly)
  • Involve your Board early and often; their role isn’t only at the end
  • Be bold, open-minded, creative, and visionary (remember, strategy = game-changer)
  • Get outside help (facilitators, strategy consultants, program management)
  • Establish a corporate planning cycle that accounts for the strategic plan, long term business plan, operating plan (budget), forecasts and updates
  • Don’t take so long building the plan that you run out of resources or enthusiasm to implement it

Treat the Strategic Plan implementation as a Program (a series of related projects)

  • Assign a program manager or steering committee tasks with ensuring success of all projects
  • Identify potential initiatives
  • Pick two or three initiatives to focus on initially
  • Fund and resource them
  • Assign accountability (no one is accountable alone, senior leaders should be accountable for all)
  • Prioritize them and add them to business systems (such as incentive comp)
  • Identify leading indicators and measure progress regularly
  • Give them some time – don’t rush, be thoughtful, especially at first to avoid major missteps, then pick up the pace
  • Assess velocity and impact. If an initiative is not performing as expected, look for ways to correct.  If corrections are not working, make a conscious decision to replace initiative with another from your potential initiatives list
  • Check, recheck and re-recheck your assumptions (repeat often!) – as you progress, you will learn more or your environmental issues may change. If that happens you may need to redirect initiatives
  • Vector – continue with initiatives until expectations met, make conscious decision to proceed further, do some type of course correction or consider other initiatives
  • Celebrate progress, assess process, communicate learnings
  • Integrate initiatives into ongoing operations
  • Move on to next set of initiatives as part of your business planning cycle (future post alert, coming soon!!)


Effective Strategic Planning is critical to the long-term sustainability of your organization. I’m sure that we have all committed some of these sins at some point. Learn from your experiences and those of others.  The strategic planning process provides useful indicators to the organization about which activities support the long term health and which activities do not.  Work together, be honest in your assessments, be bold and broad in your thinking. Utilize the expertise of your people, leaders and Board members. Know the difference between having a strategic plan and implementing that plan.  And above all, DO NOT commit the eight deadly strategic planning sins.

For more on keeping strategic plans fresh, see this article from Mark Athitakis at Associations Now;  Does Your Strategic Plan Need a Refresh?

Please share your thoughts on this topic in the comments section and make this learning a shared experience.

Thanks! –mike

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