From Plans to Actions

Imagine you have two weeks ahead of you with very little fixed on the calendar. It’s a great opportunity for some down time, but also for getting to projects further down your to-do list. You have two challenges ahead of you – one, to define how you want to use that time, and the second, to follow through so you don’t end up feeling neither relaxed nor accomplished.

These same two challenges are often present in organizations that call me with interest in strategic planning. Sometimes, they’re most aware of the first challenge – “we’re missing the drive and focus that comes from moving towards shared goals”. Just as frequently, however, the frustration is with the second challenge – “we write goals down, but that’s as far as it goes”.

Organizations do well to understand these challenges as separate, requiring different skills, processes, and energy. As a consultant, I often am only contracted for a strategic plan – a great answer for the first challenge. Strategic planning processes create space for organizations to think longer-term, make new connections, and listen to others in order to orient towards the same inspiring (yet realistic) shared vision of the future. Implementation planning – an answer to the second challenge - requires a different kind of thinking. It’s detail- and action-oriented. It leans on deep understanding of organizational trade-offs, such as the operational implications of scaling back A’s budget by X to fund proposal B. Typically, people will have preferences for one kind of thinking or the other, and organizations can assign leadership of the two processes accordingly.

Organizations understand that strategic and implementation planning require blocks of time, but both processes do best when they have ongoing attention. Keeping a finger on the strategic pulse can look like quarterly focus groups with stakeholders, scanning and discussing trends pulled from sector-specific publications, or dedicated attention to changes in the collaborative landscape.

I’m always investigating ways to set clients up for good delivery on strategic goals. I’ve learned success depends on clarity and multiple reinforcements for follow-through. Some ideas include:

Break it down: Often we don’t act because we don’t know our immediate next step (what’s involved in “getting that leak fixed”?). Even departmental-sized chunks of strategic goals may need translation into what exactly needs to happen by whom and when.

Tie it in: Keep on talking about that desired future state and what it’s going to feel like when you’re there. Make time to show how little tactics can and are building towards the bigger picture.

Build Motivation: I was hearing the frustration of a personal trainer whose clients don’t work out between sessions. “Aha, but they are showing up for those sessions!” I thought. Identify what creates motivation – peer accountability, regular check-ins, informal respected leaders modeling the new behaviors – and create supports for success. Don’t forget about support for your leadership, as well.

Understanding the differences between strategic and implementation processes and what’s needed to embed both into your organizational DNA is one big step towards creating good goals – and meeting them.

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