An Expensive Idea

Talking to other consultants who facilitate lots of strategic planning sessions for organizations, I have found that many are frustrated with what happens after the process ends. What happens? Well, nothing. That’s the problem. What is strategy without action? It’s an expensive idea. Strategic plans cost time, energy and money.

A fellow consultant and I met for coffee a couple of months ago. We were co-facilitating a board retreat out of state and we were finalizing our plans and agenda. My colleague is brilliant with over 30 years experience. He expressed to me his growing frustration with really great plans that just sit on the shelf. He joked about offering a rebate if the boards and management teams he worked with actually did what they planned to do.

As I facilitate more groups, I think about this conversation and others I have had. I genuinely get excited for the possibilities and opportunities the organizations can pursue. The growth they can attain. The success they can reach. My enthusiasm means nothing if the people charged with execution don’t follow through. It’s like exercising. I can have the exercise program and buy the gym membership, but if I don’t go to the gym and do it- what’s the point?

Why do we have a hard time with execution? I have a few theories. First, strategic plans are often a checkbox on a list of requirements for potential funders and investors. Organizations are fulfilling an external requirement. There is no real buy-in. We blindly go through team building exercises, SWOT analysis, and SMART goal development. There is no motivation to actually follow-through with the plan. As President Barlett says on the West Wing, “ok, what’s next?”

Second, even if there is an identified need to make changes among the leadership, the right stakeholders are not engaged in the process. To implement systemic changes, all parts of the system need to be engaged. Not only does this get the leadership buy-in from all levels of stakeholders both internal and external, better plans are developed, and more people are invested in making the plan succeed.

Third, we get stuck in the urgent rut. Organizations, especially nonprofits, are in constant need of money. Moving from event to event or from crisis to crisis takes the immediate attention. The urgent is prioritized over the important or even transformational. But who has the time, right?

The last theory I will list (though, I recognize there are lots of other possibilities) is that change is scary and difficult. The fear of the unknown and the fear of failure can be paralyzing. This fear is palpable, and shouldn’t be dismissed. This is where the culture of the organization is important and should be taken into consideration. Is our corporate culture to punish failure or learn from it? Do we reward calculated risks? Do we provide a safe place to be vulnerable?

The human and emotional barriers as to why strategic plans become expensive ideas are real. The disadvantage that many organizations have is that they don’t have the capacity for an official chief strategy officer whose only job is to be the keeper of the strategic plan. One of the things I tell my clients is to include different parts of their strategic plan on their meeting agendas. I tell them to ask the following questions:

  • How are our current activities helping us progress in our strategic plan?

  • Are we meeting our goal deadlines?

  • Are we engaging the right people in an effort of reaching our goals?

  • Are there any new obstacles that we didn’t anticipate when we adopted this plan?

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it gets the generative conversation flowing in the group.

We are judged by our actions not our intentions. Let’s turn our strategic plans into action plans.

I’m interested to know how other organizations went from having their expensive ideas turn into action. You can email me at

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