Don't Forget People in Strategic Planning

Debbie Zmorenski

It has been the norm for decades that organizational strategic plans have been created by upper levels of management. Annually, the best and brightest division heads come together to brainstorm the company's strategic challenges and solutions, articulate the vision for strategic growth, and formulate the plan for optimizing organizational resources. They will spend days conducting a strengths-weaknesses-opportunities-threats (SWOT) analysis, identifying critical success factors, analyzing the market and formulating the execution process for the new plan.

Yet with all the time and money spent on strategic planning, often there is a lag in putting the plans into action, or the execution fails to achieve the desired results. All managers know that execution is critical to the success of the strategic plan, but making the plan work is an even bigger challenge than creating the plan, in large part because execution requires a disciplined process or a logical set of connected activities that enables the organization to successfully integrate the strategies into the operation. Many factors inhibit the successful execution of the strategic plan, and all of them are tied to the people of the organization.

Below is a short list of factors that inhibit successful strategy execution:

  • The culture of the organization does not support the challenges presented by the plan (includes organizational politics and structure).
  • Incentive programs reward people for seniority rather than results.
  • Departmental and divisional silos in the organization inhibit the sharing of information and teamwork.
  • There is resistance to change.
  • The vision for the plan's impact on the future of the organization is not clearly articulated.
  • There is a failure to clearly describe the employees' role in the implementation of the plan.
  • Employees implementing the plan are lacking the tools, knowledge and skills.
  • There is a failure to hold people accountable for their part in successfully implementing the plan.
  • Execution takes longer than planning, so managers who are caught up in the daily challenges of running their operations may lose focus and/or interest.

The Harvard Business Review (HBR) recently conducted a study of 1,075 people from the HBR Advisory Council asking about strategy and execution in their companies. The results, which were printed in the July-August 2010 edition of HBR Magazine, showed that the obstacles to executing strategy in the current economy included being too busy/lack of time and resource constraints, while the obstacles to executing strategy in general were making it meaningful to front-line employees, translating strategy to execution and aligning jobs to strategy.

As for the most important aspect of strategy execution, clear communication was rated highest by most respondents (72 percent). One respondent said, "Failure to communicate strategy causes front-line workers to invent their own strategy."

Other high priorities identified were effective leadership and a commitment to putting the right people in the right jobs.

One of the biggest roadblocks to successful strategy execution, as stated by the respondents, was "encouraging managers to make decisions in line with the strategy."

Unfortunately, when the strategic plan is not successfully executed, it is the employees who come under fire. It is usually assumed that the plan failed because the employees do not care enough about the company and/or are not smart enough or dedicated enough to make it work. In actuality, the root of the problem is that managers still don't know a great deal about the execution of strategy. Management training in the past has had a strong focus on teaching managers strategy formulation, but very little is taught about strategy execution.

The question then is "Why don't more companies spend more time and money training managers to successfully execute?" The answer is that execution is very difficult. Complicating the difficulty of the logistics of execution is the unfortunate idea by many C-level and upper-level managers that they (the "smart" people) plan the strategy, while the underlings (the front-line, "not-so-smart" people) execute the strategy.

This difficulty can be mitigated by remembering that planning and execution are interdependent. Successful strategic results can be gained when the people responsible for execution are involved in the planning and strategy formulation process. According to the survey by HBR mentioned above, 59 percent of respondents said there is an imaginary line in their company between the thinkers and the doers, and only one-third said that strategy creation is part of everyone's job.

Additionally, managers should keep in mind the process for execution as they are planning the strategy. Simultaneous strategy formulation and planning for execution will help to remove many roadblocks by anticipating the potential barriers prior to execution of the plan, providing savings in time and money.

The following strategies and tactics will help to ensure that strategy execution in your organization is successful and effective, delivering the expected results to meet the company's goals:

Develop a Plan for Execution with the Strategic Plan

Remember that strategy formulation and execution are interdependent. Simultaneously create your strategic plan and plan for execution to minimize roadblocks and barriers such as:

  • Cultural elements that conflict with strategy processes and procedures
  • Reward and recognition practices that inhibit rather than promote effective strategy implementation
  • Job descriptions that do not align with skills necessary for plan implementation
  • Interdepartmental/divisional silos that restrict or inhibit communication and/or teamwork
  • Current policies and/or processes that are in conflict with actions necessary to successfully implement the plan

Involve Key Players

Be sure to involve the key players from all levels of the organization who will be responsible for execution of the plan.


You must effectively communicate the vision for the expected results from the plan, the intended goals for the plan, including a comprehensive timeline, the employees’ role in implementing the plan, the "what's in it for me?" to make it meaningful to the employees and gain commitment to the goals, as well as the parameters for follow-through and accountability.

Set up Employees for Success

Finally, it is critical to provide the skills, knowledge, tools and resources to ensure employees are set up for success in execution of the plan.

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About the Author

Deborah K. Zmorenski, MBA, is the co-owner and senior partner of Leader’s Strategic Advantage Inc., an Orlando, Fla.-based consulting firm. During her 34-year career with the Walt Disney W...