The Most Important Part of Strategic Planning: “Operationalizing” Strategy

Posted by on March 23, 2012

It has probably happened in your organization. Plans are made in a one or two day marathon planning session, then the team disperses to return to their regular day jobs... with the best of intentions to follow through on completing the action items assigned to them. That’s when it happens. Real life sets back in. A major client needs attention, a key employee leaves and diverts our focus or a long overdue two-week vacation is upon us. Fuzzy memories of ambiguous strategic goals and objectives grow more and more difficult to recall with clarity. Daily priorities crowd out strategic thoughts and they grow ever fainter with elapsed time. Weeks pass and before long, the next quarterly meeting is around the corner. What we have here is a failure to execute. Why? Because the strategic plan was not really “operationalized” by putting real meat of the bones of the plan. That means defining the initiatives to implement the plan in accordance with a work breakdown structure addressing all of the programs associated with plan goals and the major initiatives underneath those programs (translation: budgets, resources, timelines, deliverables, accountability structures, etc.).

Without the added granularity of operation planning, everything else is allowed to become a larger priority than the day-to-day attention we should to be giving to the strategic work of our business. The result is that execution of the strategic plan becomes a casualty of deferment.

Operational Planning: The conversion of strategic goals into execution

Well-implemented strategic planning provides the vision, direction and goals for the organization, but operational planning translates that strategy into the everyday execution tactics of the business that will ultimately produce the outcomes defined by the strategy. No business likes to admit it, but most are lacking in the know-how, competencies (skills, knowledge, experience) and discipline to carry off precise execution of strategic goals.

If you think about what corporate strategy documents normally look like, it is not terribly surprising to find that a high percentage of corporate strategies fail to be implemented. They range from ugly Excel spreadsheets to beautifully bound books. Unless operational planning has accompanied the strategic planning effort, the endeavor will always accomplish less than the intended result.

Most companies would receive a failing grade for their operational planning efforts. This is largely due to a lack of understanding of how such planning should be done. True, it is sometimes perceived to be the less “sexy” part of planning, but it is essential that operational planning be done and organizations must learn how to do it properly. Many companies have the attitude, “Don’t we have people to do that?”. Far too often, they don’t.

It’s not that operational planning is that complex to carry out, but there is some art to doing it well and it does require finesse. In short, operational planning requires a different skill set and discipline than its counterpart - strategic planning. The biggest difference is that we must adjust our thinking to the day-to-day business operations and consider all the constraints, inhibitors and accelerators that must be evaluated and factored into tactical planning. The discipline required is a mix of strategic planning with good old fashioned program and project management.

Operational planning must be done if strategic goals are to be accomplished. This is because the enterprise is really an eco-system, where a change in one area almost always effects others. The strategic goals of the organization must be translated one business unit / division / department at a time. Why? Because the goals mean something different to each area of the organization, based upon that area’s function in the enterprise.

In Conclusion

It is not enough to simply put the strategic goals out there and let the business interpret the strategy on its own. To do so is not planning, but instead is crossing fingers and hoping for the best. We’ve all seen or read about the countless examples of failed strategy implementation this leads to. Since hope is not a strategy, organizations need to buckle their safety belts and leave their comfort zones while mastering the art of execution or face the harsh realities of failing to execute on their plans.

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About the Author:

Joe Evans is a management consultant, published author, frequent speaker and recognized expert in corporate strategy and strategic planning.

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