A common criticism of conventional strategic-planning undertakings is that they run out of steam, and that the truly innovative ideas that come out of the process tend not to get implemented, despite initial energy and enthusiasm. Over the years in our own scenario consulting business, FSG has worked hard to keep a tight focus on implementation. But we recognize that the challenge is real.
There are many reasons why acting on big, important insights is hard. Sometimes moving out on even one big idea feels like too heavy a lift, especially with today’s insanely fast business tempo. Or the implied investment is too great at a time of budget-cutting and layoffs. Sometimes vested interests feel threatened and put up roadblocks. Or they co-opt the cool ideas and twist them into something quite different from the original intent of the strategic planners.
There are many other, firm-specific reasons for implementation failure.
One common pitfall – which we’ve heard reported by companies over and over in our scenario consulting world – is the tendency to assume that momentum will sustain the initial enthusiasm and energy coming out of a planning process. But it rarely works like that, once people are plucked back into their day jobs and have present-day (as opposed to futures) issues to worry about. What a Coast Guard client once called “the tyranny of the present” is indeed a formidable force.
This loss of strategic momentum is captured in the Scenario S Curve image below, in the context of the FSG scenario-planning process. Again, there’s a natural tail-off in energy and enthusiasm after the Strategy Workshop, which is the most important step of the FSG scenario process. Sometimes this is because there is no explicit plan to act on the strategy outputs, in which case the project report gets delivered to the senior owner of the effort, but with no explicit expectation that she or he will act on it. And once again, the tyranny of the present takes over. The lost momentum is hard to recover.
It’s FSG’s view that it is both important and possible to flatten the S curve – that is, to maintain focus and energy on the critical work of implementation, especially as the project team gets pulled back into normal work mode.
The trick is to actively plan the implementation phase well in advance – in the project scoping phase, really. That means budgeting time for the project team to remain at least partially engaged beyond the workshop. But more importantly it means building into the process some kind of decision milestone for senior leadership to evaluate strategic options identified in the workshop process. Here is where leadership must commit to making some decisions about which strategies the organization is prepared to invest in. This is where leadership asserts ownership over a manageable set of strategies it is prepared to champion. Relative to the amount of material coming out of the workshop, the number of strategies actually chosen may be modest. That’s fine; it’s far better for a firm to act on a small set of meaningful strategies than embrace a large set for which the firm lacks the organizational or financial capacity to adopt. Lower priority strategies can always be revisited and acted upon later.
Even with a modest, manageable set of strategies to implement, the work of the project team is still not done. Implementation teams need to be formed. Subject matter experts need to be recruited to work out the details of implementation processes. Business plans need to be coordinated. Contingencies must be drafted, etc., etc.
So, clearly, there is substantial implementation work that gets underway after the strategy workshop. Without that commitment, implementation success will be elusive. It’s our view that even the most compelling, innovative strategies need deliberate and persistent attention, from both project team and senior leadership. If thoughtfully planned and coordinated, the post-workshop implementation activity need not be an undue burden on already busy staff. In fact, the implementation work tends to re-energize the process and greatly heighten the chances of strategic follow-through and ultimate success in the marketplace.