Many strategic plans aren’t plans at all. They are wish-lists of vague objectives pretending to be strategy.
Another pretender of our times is US Presidential candidate, Donald Trump. Whatever your politics, any sane observer would have to question how he will deliver all that he promises.
The same question should be applied to strategy, for strategy is about the ‘how’ – what specific actions will be taken to deliver the intended outcomes?
Keep this in mind next time you hear Trump speak. Keep it in mind when you hear any politician or business leader speak and try applying that question to the next strategic plan you read.
Using Trump as an exemplar, consider some of his claims that are superbly summarised in an Australian Financial Review OpEd piece, 14 October 2016. Max Boot, from the Council on Foreign Relations, writes:
“Trump has gone even further by promising that he “alone” can somehow destroy Islamic State, end terrorism, return lost manufacturing jobs, stop illegal immigration by building a wall that Mexico will pay for, deport 11 million undocumented immigrants, end trade deficits, make all of America’s streets safe and accomplish a host of other miracles.”
Boot writes, “His inability to spell out any way to get from here to there has not been an insurmountable impediment to his electoral success, at least not so far.”
Replace ‘his’ and ‘his electoral success’ with ‘Executive’ and ‘board sign off’ and you will describe many a strategy process in organisations today.
Boot goes on, “A surprisingly large number of people are all too willing to swallow these grandiose and unbelievable promises while professing themselves not to be troubled by Trump’s lack of basic knowledge about governance.”
Do with that sentence what you will.
The point is that strategies must make clear how ambitions will be achieved. They are not to be written as goals in themselves. For example, it is insufficient to state “win a share of xyz market” as a strategy. That is a goal. A strategy statement would make clear:
- Where the organisation will position itself in the market
- What will differentiate the offering, be it a product or a service, from other offerings and what has been done previously
- How the organisation’s internal resources and capabilities be organised to deliver the intended outcomes
These points must be supported by sound analysis of relevant facts that lend credence to the path being pursued.
Continuing in the government arena of pretend strategies, consider Australia’s National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Plan 2013 – 2023.
The plan states that a goal is to ensure “The health system delivers clinically appropriate care that is culturally safe, high quality, responsive and accessible for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people”.
And the strategy to achieve this goal?
“Improve the clinical effectiveness of the health system for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to contribute to improved health outcomes.”
If this were a spreadsheet, the error message ‘circular references unresolved’ would pop up.
The strategy to achieve the goal of delivering “clinically appropriate care” is to “improve the clinical effectiveness of the health system”. What we have here are two goals. After reading it we are no clearer on what actions are going to be implemented to deliver improved health outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. How can the reader possibly evaluate the veracity of the plan?
Strategies should make clear the where-what-how of the actions being taken to achieve agreed goals. In the Health Plan example, where will the services be delivered? What will be different under this strategy than is currently available? Specifically, how will resources be organised to ensure the stated goal is achieved? Will new capabilities be required to deliver the culturally safe, high quality, responsible and accessible care?
These questions remain the same in contested markets where companies compete for market share. But here the question of differentiation is fundamental to success. What is unique about the company’s offering that sets it apart, that will enable it to win in a competitive market.
Just as Max Boot implores American voters to be wary of candidates’ grandiose but unsupported claims, directors and executives must remain vigilant to the incomplete dreamsheets that are often offered up as strategic plans. To do so, ask the ‘how’ questions.
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