Are Your Thought Bubbles
Killing Your Strategic Plan?

By Holly G. Green

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 three 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. Employees usually believe they are doing the right things and are working hard to produce what they believe is expected. The problem is, what they believe is the right thing may be out of date or out of alignment with what you now need in the organization.

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 and then constantly inspiring employees to want to go there.

Killer thought bubble #3: “Announcing a change means that we have already changed”: This is one of the subtler and more insidious thought bubbles. In today’s world, most strategic initiatives involve a significant amount of change, but there’s a big difference between announcing change and actually achieving it. Many organizations announce new change initiatives with a lot of fanfare. But after all the hoopla has passed, what actually happens is that people end up investing their time and energy in attempting to rearrange their old ways of thinking rather than adopt new ones.

Instead of discarding their old ideas, assumptions and beliefs, people look for ways to make the old ideas work within the context of the announced change. In other words, they give lip service to the change, but spend most of their time trying to make the new ideas fit into their old ways of working. As a result, everyone acts as if the change has occurred when, in reality, it never even got out of the starting gate.

Implementing change requires more than inspired oratory. People have to consciously change how they think and act. The organization needs to set new goals that are clearly different than previous ones. It needs to outline what behaviors and results are necessary to achieve the new goals and objectives AND which behaviors are out of bounds. Most of all, management needs to state very clearly which elements of the status quo should remain and which ones need to go. Otherwise, people will have very different interpretations of what to hold onto, and the organization will remain stuck in the past while everyone incorrectly thinks they have moved on.

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? Why?

  • 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 new 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. Beware of thinking that you know how everything will turn out just because you have a beautifully documented plan. And don’t think you have already changed just because you announced it.

Ask questions that challenge your beliefs and assumptions. Be prepared to adjust as your plan unfolds, and communicate those adjustments as necessary. Do these things on a consistent basis and those misleading thought bubbles will no longer derail your carefully crafted plans.

Read other articles and learn more about Holly G. Green.

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