Why Strategic Planning Fails and How to Get It Right


Paradoxes are an interesting thing.  They simultaneously make no sense at all and make too much sense to ignore. One paradox that exists for many people lies in the feelings that they have when it comes to vacations or holidays. You can be simultaneously excited for your upcoming break and overwhelmed by the amount of preparation that it takes to leave on good terms.  Conversely, when you return from a big break, you can be mentally refreshed from the time off and also stressed by the number of upcoming projects and activities that need your immediate attention. It is this particular paradox that often drives leaders to unintentionally miss the mark on a crucial activity in the life cycle of an organization: the annual reflection and strategy planning process that sets the tone for the next year.

 It is this process of reflecting and planning that we have been working so hard to get right at LeanCor in recent years. Where we haven't succeeded in the past is performing the process in a way that creates barriers to understanding for our team members.  Albeit unintentional, failing to deeply engage the entire team in the learning of the organization in the strategy going forward puts instantaneous limits on the effectiveness of that strategy.  For an idea to spread it must be embraced, and for it to be embraced it must be understood. If the team can’t understand the goals, progress made, and the plan going forward, strategic planning documents will culminate in more corporate wallpaper.

Here are some common pitfalls that can prevent a team-first approach to year-end reflection and strategic planning. 


Reflecting in silos without a strong pulse of the team

It’s typically just not possible to include every team member in every reflection and strategy discussion. As such, it can be easy to have a small number of leaders build the plan in isolation from the rest of the team.  Although scale-able, this creates an inherent disconnect between what the team is feeling and what the leaders are perceiving. In other words: a gap between the daily tactical experience and the overarching strategy. 

Team-first remedy: Use a combination of mediums to collect feedback from team members throughout the year and at various milestones that drive planning updates.  Periodic surveys (be careful not to over-survey!) and open-forum ,two-way dialogue can be used to pair the actual pulse of the team with the perceptions of the leaders driving the strategy.

Filling the strategies with jargon

Many leaders like the sound of their own voices and, in turn, their own language in documents. Building strategic plans that are filled with business jargon, C-level terminology and/or specific acronyms are just asking for team members to dismiss them. Language that doesn’t resonate with the team will lead the less-confident team members to disengage.

On the flip-side, language that is jargon-heavy will lead the cynical to assume it isn’t meaningful or connected to their work.

Team-first remedy: Use business jargon sparingly, including well-understood terminology as frequently as possible. Assess the language that is made visible to the team in the various work zones and tailor the strategy and reflection documents to match that language where possible. For the items that need to have more technical or high-level terminology, work to socialize it with team members through proactive discussion and communication.

Over-complicating how the strategy cascades down

We have failed in various approaches to build our year-end strategy because the connection between the high-level goals and the actual project owners was either unclear or not tracked consistently. Team members who participate in executing the strategy, especially if the plan is project-centric, will likely only have a touch point to the overall strategy from the perspective of their individual project.  And, if a team member’s support of the strategy isn’t directly tied to a specific project, they may even feel that the strategy does not relate to them.  If documentation that shows how the individual projects and/or work functions track to the high-level strategic plan is not clearly constructed, team members will struggle to make connections of their efforts to the goals of the organization.

Team-first remedy: This one is simple. When the strategic initiatives for the year have been decided upon (and we would recommend carrying these over for multiple years to drive continuity), clearly assign supporting projects to individual owners and document them in groups associated directly with the specific strategic initiatives.  Use an A3 mentality (all of the information on one page) and make the A3 for each strategic initiative available for team members to see. 

To involve team members who aren’t directly participating in projects, include work function and department associations for the strategic initiatives so that they can be referenced in the different management system tools you use to drive the work.  This can create opportunities to have productive dialogue with team members.

Failing to communicate with consistency

The biggest killer of meaningful momentum for a strategic plan comes when it is only discussed once: when the plan is built, and when it's formally reflected upon. For us, that time is typically in December. Just like anything else, an understanding of the plan requires muscle memory, driven by a diligent attempt to provide updates and insert the key language of the strategy in the various communicable platforms used within the organization.

If these efforts aren’t made, there will be an “oh yeah, I think I remember that” moment when the reflection is done for the next year.  That’s less than desirable.

Team-first remedy: As stated above, build a communication plan or platform that will promote consistent reviews of the status on the progress of strategic initiatives.  Make sure that front-line leaders are hearing updates firsthand and that are reinforcing the messages with their teams.

Reflection and strategic planning are not a specific requirement for the day-to-day running of a business.  These activities are used to take the organization to the next level.  However, if not done correctly, they will add little value. The activities will be ultimately wasteful.  In other words, a year-end commitment to reflection and strategic planning can simultaneously be a competitive differentiation and a complete waste of time.

Hear from the team, simplify the strategy, connect the team to the strategy and be consistent with providing updates. If you do, everyone will be on board and can help make the strategies successful.

Posted by Clint McCrystal

blog author

Training and Development Manager at LeanCor | I am an individual with many interests, and I like to leverage both my creative and analytical skills.

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