Executing the Strategic Plan: A Mid-Level Leadership Responsibility
By Dr. Daniel Jensen, Professor, Harrisburg University of Science and Technology
Strategic planning is a disciplined effort to produce fundamental decisions and actions that shape and guide what an organization is, what it does, and why it does it (John M. Bryson, Strategic Planning for Public and Nonprofit Organizations). In short, a strategic plan should be the driving force for actions at all levels of an organization. This effort consists of much more than conducting an annual offsite to determine an organizational philosophy (i.e., vision, mission, values, core competencies, and priorities). If the strategic plan is properly executed, it will facilitate a way of thinking, acting, and learning that is necessary to achieve organizational success. Without strategic planning, an organization may continuously react to near-term issues with membersof the organization notunderstandingwhy their work is important. Strategic planninglinks and synchronizes actions at all levels of the organization,resulting in leaders and followers who understand where they are heading and why their day-to-day actions matter. Because resources arenormallylimited, strategic planning must occur to ensure thatresources are not expended unnecessarily because of a lack of strategic and operational focus.
Sometimes, however, synchronization of actions and organizational focus at all levels does not happen, even if a strategic plan exists. Unfortunately, in some organizations, the annual strategic planning offsite is viewed as an intrusion into day-to-day priorities and tasks—a “check-the-box” activity that does not translate into actionable objectives and tasks. The strategic plan often is dismissed as esoteric and the responsibility of senior leaders, not those in mid- and lower-level leadership positions. Consequently, the execution of the strategic plan does not occur.
While senior leaders may be responsible for developing the strategic plan, it is the responsibility of mid-level leaders to translate this strategy into operational-level plans and actions that will result in execution throughout the organization. Without mid-level leadership buy-in and emphasis, the strategic plan cannot be cascaded throughout the organization. Here are five fundamental actions mid-level leadership can take responsibility for in order to facilitate the execution of the strategic plan.
1. Supporting Goals and Objectives—Fixing Responsibility
The organizational philosophy is the foundation of the strategic plan; however, strategic goals with supporting objectives must be developed. Goals describe a future condition that the organization needs to attain in order to achieve its vision. Objectives are statements of what must be done to achieve a goal. Effective Objectives are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely (SMART). As goals and supporting objectives are developed, it is important to identify what individual or organization has primary responsibility for their achievement. Also, identify other individuals or organizations that need to assist the primary in accomplishing the goals and objectives. Fixing primary and assist responsibilities for achieving goals and objectives is imperative in order to develop action plans.
2. Detailed Action Planning—Where the “Rubber Meets the Road”
Each objective should have an action plan. An action plan describes specific tasks that are necessary to achieve the supported objective. This level of planning is where “the rubber meets the road” and ultimately determines the success or failure of achieving objectives, goals and, ultimately, the organizational vision. Actions plans detail milestones, activities, timeframes, resources, and team members required to achieve an objective. Action plan development varies from using butcher paper and markers to the use of software programs. Develop action plans in a manner that best meets the needs of those involved in executing the plans.
3. Measurements—Understanding Progress
It is necessary to measure specific tasks in order to understand progress against expected results. Measures are a standard to evaluate and communicate performance. They should be developed to give leadership a current view of the progress of goals, objectives, and action plan achievement. Mark Graham Brown, in his book, “Keeping Score: Using the Right Metrics to Drive World-Class Performance,”offers the following suggestions on how to approach organizational measurement:
- Concentrate on measuring the vital few key variables rather than the trivial many.
- Measures should be linked to the factors needed for success: key business drivers.
- Measures should be a mix of past, present, and future to ensure that the organization is concerned with all three perspectives.
- Measures should be based around the needs of customers, shareholders, and other key stakeholders.
- Measures should start at the top and flow down to all levels of employees in the organization.
- Multiple indices can be combined into a single index to give a better overall assessment of performance.
- Measures need to have targets or goals established that are based on research rather than arbitrary numbers.
- Measures should be changed or at least adjusted as the environment and your strategy changes.
4. Environmental Scanning—Assessing Opportunities and Threats
A strategic plan is a living document. Changes and updates to the plan are driven by the strategic environment—those factors outside the organization that are potential opportunities or threats. The strategic environment must be scanned and assessed in order to make appropriate adjustments to the strategic plan. One method to undertake this scan is by using a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (SWOT) Analysis. The SWOT analysis is a methodology many organizations use to determine the strengths and weakness that are inherent to the organization (internal focus) and the opportunities and threats that are outside the organization (external focus). Strengths and weakness normally are focused on the present state of the organization, while opportunities and threats are future oriented. To identify internal strengths and weaknesses, the organization must monitor resources, strategies, and performance. Monitoring external forces and trends (e.g., political, economic, social, educational, technological, informational, environmental) can helpidentifyopportunities and threats. It is imperative that the leadership of an organization dedicate the appropriate resources to properly scan and assess the strategic environment.
5. Leadership Emphasis—A Strategic Planning Imperative
Employees pay attention to what is important to the boss. In order for the strategic plan to be effectively executed, it must be a top priority of leadership at all levels. Leaders can emphasize the importance of strategic plan execution in several ways.
- Meeting with subordinate leadership to explain intent and expectations
- Displaying posters in work areas showing the organizational philosophy
- Posting the strategic plan on the organizational homepage
- Promoting the strategic plan on social media
- Addressing the strategic plan during media events and visits to subordinate organizations
- Developing and presenting supporting plans
- Hosting “town hall meetings” to express the significance of the strategic plan
- Evaluating employees based on accomplishment of strategic planning products (goals, objectives, action plans, metrics)
A strategic plan provides the framework for an organizationto prioritize and synchronize organizational and individual actions in order to achieve the goals and vision of an organization. However, having a plan on the shelf is not enough. Mid-level leaders, supported by senior leadership, must accept strategic planexecution responsibilities by developing goals and objectives, creating and implementing actions plans, measuring progress, scanning the environment, and providing leadership emphasis. Leadership—particularly mid-level leadership—is the foundation of success.
Dan Jensen is a consultant, educator, and retired military officer specializing in strategic planning, leadership, and organizational development. He teaches organizational leadership at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology. For more information, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.