7 Strategic Planning Roadblocks to Implementation

Having worked with hundreds of small businesses over the course of this century, we’ve come to some anecdotal conclusions on both why strategic plans don’t get implemented (dusty slide deck, anyone?) and ways to mitigate these risks.

Our definition of a small business is a company that has been around for at least a couple of years and has at least ten but usually not more than 100 employees. They’ve made it through the first “valley of death” and have learned that what got you here won’t get you there. They know they must change and decide they need a strategic plan to do it.

In these established small businesses, strategic plans rarely fail due to a mistake in the strategy itself. Not that they all have great strategies (that muscle usually takes time to develop), but if they have been doing enough things right to survive and grow for a few years, even a bad strategy well implemented is not a “fail” – in part because good implementation allows for course correction along the way. If the strategy fails, it’s due to lack of implementation.

Why don’t they implement? There are lots of reasons – see if any of these ring a bell for you:

1. Not Investing Time

Problem: When we describe Bellrock’s in-depth strategic planning process, some people balk at the time commitment. “How can we take those days off of work?!” they exclaim, not realizing that for the leadership team, not only are these tough working days (not “days off”), they are the only people in the organization that have the authority, experience, and perspective to set strategy. If they aren’t taking a few days a year (2% of their time? 5%?) thinking about the strategic plan for the business, who is? Strategy isn’t quick work, it’s deep work. If you don’t go deep, it’s tough to implement.

Solution: Calendaring

As Steven Covey suggested, treat important things importantly. Finding a defensible, differentiated, profitable, and sustainable approach to the market is the most important task of the business leader, but it may not be the most urgent at the moment. The single most difficult task our clients seem to have is not the planning, but the scheduling of the planning meetings! Pick a regular cadence and stick to it no matter what. At Bellrock, we use the last Wednesday of each month, but every company is different. If you can pull the senior team out of the daily grind for five days a year, magic should ensue.

2. Lack of Specificity

Problem: There are standard components to a strategic plan. Behavioural norms, long- and short-term goals, competitive differentiators, and the reasoning behind them all. “Growth” is not a strategy. There are so many ways to grow – more services, more salespeople, new geographies, different partnerships, price increases….How much growth, from where, by when, how will we finance it….Are we talking growth of revenue, profit, gross margin? Without clear objectives, it becomes challenging for the management team to develop a road map for implementation.

Solution: Ask Questions

Leadership teams use language they think all will understand but may not offer enough detail or context to drive their vision throughout the broader organization. As a result, their teams find it difficult to act on the plans, and sometimes even the leadership team will forget what they meant by the plan. When explaining the strategy, asking, “Do you get it?” and receiving “yes” is not sufficient to ensure that people actually do. We need to ensure we have put enough colour on the picture that the teams can execute.

3. Poor Communication

Problem: It’s difficult for people to meet expectations if we don’t set them. A clear strategy in the leadership’s mind is not nearly as effective if the others in the organization are unaware or unclear of those expectations. Without this awareness and regular follow up, staff will continue doing what they’ve always done and won’t necessarily act on the strategy you think you’ve set.

Solution: Meeting Rhythms

A strategic plan far more likely to succeed when everyone in the organization understands it and is aligned with it. After the planning session concludes, the ideal communication process would involve holding town hall meetings where the plans can be presented, questions can be asked, and understanding tested. From there, regular status updates, check-ins, and adjustments keep the plan moving forward and blows away the roadblocks that can otherwise cause the strategy to stall.

4. Resistance to Change

Problem: Implementing a strategic plan often involves making changes to the way things are currently done. Resistance to change is a common obstacle that companies face, which can prevent them from executing their strategic plans.

Solution: The Five Questions

A natural human reaction to change of any sort is fear. When introducing an initiative (change) it is imperative to answer these questions:

  • What is changing?
  • What isn’t changing?
  • What is the risk of not changing?
  • Why is it changing?
  • Why is it changing now?

Of course, answering these questions once isn’t enough. The answers must be repeated time and again for the messaging to stick and stifle the seeds of doubt.

5. Insufficient Resources

Problem: Implementing a strategic plan requires adequate resources, including financial, human, and technological resources. Without adequate resources, it becomes challenging to execute the plan.

Solution: The Project Plan

You wouldn’t begin construction on a house without a budget and drawings. It’s too complicated, there are too many moving pieces and people involved, and if you miss a couple of items, the money may run out. Similarly, a company strategy requires a plan that includes who we need, what we need, how much it will cost, how long it will take…without the project plan it is difficult to ensure sufficient resources to reach the goal.

6. Lack of Monitoring and Evaluation

Problem: Companies need to monitor and evaluate their progress continually. Without monitoring and evaluation, it’s impossible to determine whether the strategic plan is on track and to make necessary adjustments.

Solution: Action Logs

With the project plan in place, it is the “on track” or “off track” measurement systems that make all the difference in implementation. A summary, bullet-pointed document of who should do what by when, including milestones, ensures everyone stays on the metaphorical and literal same page. While following up on actions and monitoring progress are also helpful activities, just creating the action log is a powerful communication tool in setting expectations.

7. Ineffective Leadership

Problem: Effective leadership is essential to the success of any strategic plan. Leaders need to provide direction, inspire their team, and hold people accountable for their roles in executing the plan.

Solution: Know the Role

The core of a leader’s role is to identify where the organization is going and why. They find a bus, ensure it has enough seats, put the right bums in those seats, and then they get out of the way so the passengers can execute. A leader spends 100% of their time envisioning the future and galvanizing support to achieving that future. They spend the other 20% of their time finding the right people to execute on that vision. That’s why they’re tired.

A strategy – a defensible, differentiated, profitable, and sustainable approach to the market – is one of the foundational tools that helps leaders run their business. Successful implementation of a strategic plan requires a combination of clear objectives, effective communication, adequate resources, ongoing monitoring and evaluation, and effective leadership. Audit your existing strategic plan to see if you’ve blown away these roadblocks or if there is more work to be done.

Bellrock offers business leaders a unique perspective on strategic challenges. We also translate that perspective into actionable plans that improve results and train managers on execution. Our purpose is to unleash potential, developing life-long relationships and raving fans. If you found this article valuable, don’t be stingy. Share.

Written By:
Tara Landes

Tara Landes is the Founder and President of Bellrock. She has spent over 20 years consulting and training in small to medium-sized enterprises. A sought-after speaker on a wide range of business topics, Tara has delivered workshops and seminars at conferences and industry associations across Canada. Tara obtained a BA (Honours) in Political Science from the University of Western Ontario (UWO) and earned an MBA from UWO's Richard Ivey School of Business.

More By This Author