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Are Your Thought Bubbles Killing Your Strategic Plan?

Those who follow my blog or have heard me speak to business groups and conventions know that I constantly talk about the dangers of MSU, or making stuff up.

Making stuff up occurs when we listen to the thought bubbles inside our heads that tell us the world must be a certain way; when we fill in the voids of information with our own interpretation or beliefs. We get into trouble when we make decisions or take action without testing to see whether the assumptions underlying our thought bubbles are actually true. Or when we forget to pause every now and then to question the thought bubbles that we have had for awhile.

Thought bubbles come in all shapes and sizes, and contain all sorts of half-truths and misinformation. Here are two that frequently wreak havoc with efforts to implement a strategic plan.

Killer thought bubble #1: “Once the strategic plan gets written, it will get done exactly as intended.”

I can’t tell you how many times I see this thought bubble undermine well-meaning strategic initiatives. It’s almost funny, considering how most plans end up in binders or tucked away on the shelf never to be looked at again. But even those companies that refer to their strategic plans on a regular basis frequently succumb to this fatal mistake.

The hard truth is that even the best strategic plans do not unfold exactly as planned. As you progress towards your destination points, you will encounter surprises. Some will come from changes in the external environment that you couldn’t possibly foresee.

Others will result from internal forces, such as old ways of doing things, resistance to change, and unspoken beliefs that underlie stated goals. Expectations that plans will not require fundamental organizational changes are dangerous because they can prevent you from properly managing the current state. Never underestimate the amount of change that might be required to see your plan through. And be careful of minimizing the difficulty of implementing that change.

Killer thought bubble #2: “We just have to execute and everything will turn out fine.”

On the surface, this seems to make sense. Upon closer inspection, thinking that all you have to do is execute can lead to the assumption that alignment with and commitment to the plan already exist within your organization. Not so!

Most companies do a lousy job of communicating the strategic plan to front-line employees. When people don’t know or understand the goals and objectives, they end up working on what is important to them rather than what is important to the organization. Without ongoing communication around the plan, you can throw any hopes for alignment right out the window.

Similarly, management often assumes that employees are committed to the future when in reality they remain much more committed to the past. The past almost always seems more compelling because people at least think they understand what happened and why. There is some comfort in knowing, even if they do not like what they know. Gaining commitment to the plan requires making sure that the future is more compelling than the past.

To avoid suffering the consequences of these thought bubbles, ask questions like:

  • How does the expected pace of getting to our destination points compare to the actual pace?
  • What new initiatives have we started in the past year? How have those progressed? What initiatives have we stopped?
  • What proportion of our resources is focused on maintaining and enhancing the status quo versus new initiatives?
  • How much time do we spend promoting and moving towards the destination points?
  • Are near-term problems and opportunities consuming everyone’s time and preempting our longer-term progress?
  • Do we have clear champions who will keep others focused on making progress for each significant initiative?
  • Are there consequences for missing deadlines or other obligations?

Never mistake a written plan for reality. And don’t assume that you know how everything will turn out, even if you have a beautifully documented plan.

Be prepared to adjust and communicate those adjustments as necessary, and those misleading thought bubbles will no longer derail your carefully crafted plans.

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