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From Stategy to Action: Making Stategic Plans Happen

Frank Howarth - Royal Botanic Gardens - Sydney

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Strategic plans can be made to achieve change, to achieve outcomes or they can be made to fail. The choice is generally ours. In this brief roundup presentation I will look at some of the key things not to do in implementing strategic plans and some of the factors that do achieve success.

The “not to do’s” centre on poor communication, poor input and poor ownership, and not abiding by the rules. The “to do’s” focus on plans that are specific, with clear measurable objectives, clear accountability for who will make things happen, and specific time frames. In short, plans that embody the “Where are we now? Where do we want to be? Did we make it? cycle”.

Right, we now have our strategic plan! Ideally, it says, by this time we want to be here, or, this is where we want to be.

Let’s look at how that might be made to happen. But first lets look at some common problems with strategic plans that might stop it happening (the failure criteria).

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It looks good but....

I think we may all have seen the strategic plan where more money, time and effort when into the graphic design, the choice of paper and the typeface than anything else about it. These are what I call coffee table strategic plans. They look great on the table in your reception area, in a sponsor pack (assuming they don’t read it) or on the boardroom table. Depending on the target audience plans should look impressive to that audience. But there has to be substance with the form.

The “We will continue to strive to try and achieve even better with real passion” more or less what we are doing now.

These are the warm and fuzzy, well meaning, upbeat plans that try and convince people that something is changing, when in fact all they are doing is reinforcing the appropriateness (perhaps) of what is already being done. They tend to be vague, non specific and very much more of the same. They tend to lack accountability. Who will do what? By when? They tend to lack success criteria. How will we know if something has been achieved? They tend to lack targets and performance measures, which for some people is good because they are not really held accountable for anything.

The commonest questions with these types of plan is, who is the audience? Who is the plan for? If you really want a marketing document, then do that well. If your plan is to achieve change with your own staff, colleagues, then design it for that audience.

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OK, so how do we make a strategic plan become a reality?

What are the critical success factors we use for a strategic plan?

The plan itself.

Somewhere in our plans there should be a set of objectives. The first test is, are they specific? Are they outcome focused? Do they say where we want to be? Our plan will also have some actions, or perhaps strategies, depending on your jargon. The things that are supposed to make the plan happen, are they specific with a deadline? Will we clearly know if this action has been achieved? If the actions aren’t specific it is very difficult to determine the resources, money or people necessary to make it happen.

Are the actions actually achievable? There is little point in putting in place a strategy or action that everybody knows really can’t be achieved. It’s fine to have objectives that may seen very difficult but it is pointless to have an action that is the first step in achieving that objective that is also unachievable.

Our plan also needs to incorporate some performance or success measures. Are they really performance measures, not a busyness measure? For example do they relate to achievement relative to a target rather than simply turnover?

They should preferably be outcome (or even output) measures, rather than input. For example, if an action is to achieve 100% awareness within the community of the conservation program within your garden, it’s not good enough to measure simply the dollars spent on the advertising. We need to assess the outcome, for example the percentage of people aware after a certain time of the conservation program, against your target for the level of awareness in that group.

Performance measures also need to be able to be measured. This seems a crazy remark but there are many performance measures set with the best will in the world that will cost more than the entire budget of the organisation to actually measure them. For example, the number of plant species saved from extinction versus those which become extinct.

Now lets look at the people who need to implement the plan.

Does the plan have ownership? Do the people we expect to make it happen believe in it? Are they willing to make it happen?

How many times have we seen organisations where the first anyone knows of the plan is when the consultant or the Director hands it out. “OK team lets go....” is met with blank or angry stares.

The curliest element of all in making a plan actually happen is achieving that fine balance of enough consultation with staff or other key stakeholders, without entering analysis paralysis.

My own experience is that it is absolutely worth my time to present a draft plan to all of our staff, and I mean all. I think it is absolutely necessary to do the people the curtesy of asking their views, or they will do us the curtesy of ignoring our plan, or even sabotaging it.

Some key questions in this issue are:

Perhaps the final and absolutely most crucial area of making a corporate plan happen is that link to the budget and to the action plans of the people on the ground. How does that strategic objective of having 100% of the declared rare or threatened plants of New South Wales held in the Gardens seed bank become reality? Who is going to do what to achieve it? Has the money been allocated?

From our point of view the plan is important, but what is far more important to me is when I see the annual action plan of our seed store collectors reflecting their part in achieving the plan, and when I know that we have allocated the right amount of money through our annual budget process for them to be able to do it. Strategic plans must have a trickle down mechanism and that must be followed up. It is far more likely that action plans will make the strategic plan happen if the people responsible for the day to day actions own the plan.

Of course this pre supposes the final stage of making our plan happen. Accountability. Do we have a mechanism in place to make sure that the targets set in the plan are being achieved by the people who are accountable for them. What’s the review mechanism for our plan? Who’s accountable for keeping the bastards honest? A plan must be tracked, it must evolve, it must be updated, it must remain relevant.

The plan really has to reflect that oh so important loop in any type of planning. Where do we want to be? How do we get there? And did we make it?


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