Strategic Action – From Horror to High-Performance

High PerformanceIf management consultants made horror films, most would somehow feature the theme of strategic planning gone lame.  Let me pitch an example flick and see if you’ll green-light me.

After years of neglect, Acme Widgetry finally does it – they “get serious” and build a strategic plan.  It is a good plan full of good information and well-intentioned statements about priorities and what is important.  At great expense, the plan is copied, bound, and distributed to key personnel who each dutifully “install” the plan… on a bookshelf.

Our film isn’t a slasher flick but more of a haunting.  Gone but not forgotten, the plan keeps re-emerging from month to month in various meetings as challenges arise and someone asks, “Didn’t we solve this issue during planning?” or, “What did we put in the plan that we were going to do?”  Acme’s plan is neither alive and guiding operations nor fully dead and buried.  It’s stuck in limbo accomplishing nothing other than dissuading everyone from ever bothering to invest the effort in planning ever again.

With just a few simple techniques, every team can achieve high performance results through sensible strategic planning turned strategic action.  I can show you how.

Know Your Goal
Prove me wrong on the following statement: “Our goal is simply to get the plan done.”

No? Then what is your goal?  We’re clear it should never be static, simply sitting on a bookshelf.  But it should be much more than a list of priorities, or grandiose statements about things to be accomplished in the year ahead.

When I help clients, I always stress that the goal should be monthly accountability (minimum) toward achieving high performance – not the plan itself.  So our goal in planning is a very tangible, very measurable plan that anyone can read and understand whether we’re on target for performance or not as well as what the next step should be.

Gather The Facts
Before you meet to plan, get all the information you need to do a complete job.  This varies depending on the issues you face, but generally it means revisiting the vision and mission for the organization.  It means gathering accurate financials and operational measures as these will be used to forecast the future.

It also means getting input from employees and key stakeholders as to what would make the organization better, as well as key clients, former clients, and business partners.  This step not only provides valuable information, but it provides these important people with the knowledge that they are valued and generates buy-in to any changes the organization may make.  It can also prove to be an important business development tool with your clients.

Write a NEW Adventure
Remember, our goal is high performance through action and accountability. So to begin with, establish at least two things: a compelling vision, and a way to always know whether or not you’re getting to your goal.

Most of the groups I work with intuitively understand that having a vision is important yet they don’t take it seriously as a planning tool.  When I say “establish a compelling vision,” I mean “and plan to it.”  The vision is what you as leaders have charged yourselves with becoming.  So as planning progresses, ask yourself, “If we accomplish everything we’ve laid out, will we have achieved our vision?”  If not, try again – you’re not done.  You must strive to become something, and know what you’re becoming.

Critically, after planning, you must also know whether you’re on track.  Great organizations constantly monitor their progress through performance measures.  Take the time now to establish how you would measure successful progress toward your vision.  Would it be in fiscal terms, like revenue and profit?  In terms of quality?  Or productivity, or business development? How can you measure and know your progress and define success?

Establish the Plan
The key difference between plans that sit on the shelf and plans that get used is measurability. Measurable equals actionable.  That prior step of taking the vision (and anything else that needs accomplishing) and expressing it in measurable terms makes all the difference because now two key things can happen more readily: the creation of goals, and action plans.

Take the example of a small professional services firm needing more work.  Before planning their goal was simply, “Find more customers.”  With the introduction of the business development measure “Number of contracts closed per month,” their new goal was restated during planning to “Increase the number of contracts closed per month to 4 by June 30, resulting in $80,000 NET being added each month.” See the difference? A much clearer goal that everyone can come to agreement on is instantly available.

Now the question is how to do it.  The goal is to build an action plan that breaks the goal down into achievable steps, assigning responsibility and timelines.  Don’t know how to get the goal accomplished, or don’t have all the needed information during planning?  No problem: assign a small task force or point person to take up the cause after the planning session.

Take it All the Way
Strategic planning is done and it’s time to put things into action.  This time around, though, the path is much clearer.  There are exceptionally clear goals, action plans for what to do, things to get started with.  There are just two things to take care of in order to get started: performance budgeting, and distributing accountabilities.

Remember the example of the professional services firm that wanted to get to four new contracts per month?  What if that’s you and you’re at zero right now?  Performance budgeting is just like financial budgeting: it’s setting monthly performance goals for all the goals established during planning. The goal might be one for this month, two next, and so on.

Additionally, each of those action plans had action items on them assigned to different members of the team – perhaps even to people who weren’t at the planning session.  This is the time to organize and distribute those accountabilities so that they actually get done.

It’s also the time to schedule monthly performance management meetings for the next year.  Yes, the entire year.  You just planned a year’s strategy, so plan to get together at least once a month to check progress and take proactive action to correct course and shift direction.  This is the key to making this work.

Bringing it Together
Admittedly, we’ve left many possible steps and variations out.  But even so, look how actionable our strategic planning has become!  Far from horror, this is glorious!  We’ve got a clear vision, a future defined in measurable terms, concrete goals, and action plans with individual accountabilities.

Many organizations have great ideas but never make it past strategy, but it doesn’t have to be that way.  With a simple shift in the way you do your planning, any team can achieve high-performance results.

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Making Business Resolutions Happen

BalloonsWe are at an interesting time.  A struggling economy is forcing many businesses into creative action to improve their position right at the turn of the year, a time when many naturally resolve to improve and do better any way.

While this double whammy of introspection still hasn’t inspired everyone to new levels of action and success, in my own practice, I have definitely noticed an uptick in leaders pulling out all stops and resolving to make 2009 a growth year despite conventional wisdom.

So what are your peers doing to get ahead?  And how do they plan to make their 2009 business resolutions stick?  This is the approach I see proactive leaders following.

Focus on a Few, Critical Issues

Years ago, I was trying to organize my “top few priorities” and to do so, wrote each on a separate sticky note and placed it on my cabinet door.  Before I knew it, my “little list” had grown beyond the cabinet door to the wall.  Just then one of my employees walked in, saw what I was doing, and began laughing.  I didn’t think she was going to stop.

It was indeed a ridiculous sight. Many of us have done something like it, whether on sticky notes, notepads, or Outlook tasks. The challenge is when the list gets too long, it’s not effective.

In my practice, I find that there are generally around one or two truly “log jam” issues – things that are absolutely holding the organization back, or killing it, and then a few more that are truly important.  Find the few issues that are truly critical to the success of your organization, focus on these, and use the old 80/20 rule to allocate your effort.

Define Performance Factors

I confess, I’m a numbers person.  I find it very hard to change something unless I can define that something clearly, and measure it.  Let me give an example that flows from a couple different organizations I work with.

Imagine you’ve identified that the quality of your service isn’t what it should be. That’s not good!  “Quality needs to be better!” you say, and you’re right, but that’s not very helpful.  How do you measure “better,” how do you report on it in meetings, and how do you set goals and know they’re achieved?

It’s better to start with Performance Factors – measurable indicators of performance from which we can set goals.  In this example, quality is measured by factors like: client satisfaction ratings, number of complaints per month, etc.  In this way, now we can measure where quality is, and set clear goals to make it change.  And that’s next.

Set Clear Goals

I always enjoy meeting clients for the first time because I never know what new adventure I’m getting myself into.  Everyone’s ideas are unique, and their goals are unique, and the most exciting part of my job is to pull out each person’s passion and help make their goals as clear and doable as possible by breaking them down into seemingly simple steps.

Part of that process, for me, is to get extremely clear on what needs to change.  Let’s go back to our very simple client example of improving quality.  One of the Critical Factors identified was “client satisfaction ratings.”  It’s very easy, now, to create a crystal clear goal like, “Improve client satisfaction ratings by five percentage points in the next 180 days.”

We’ve just gone from “Quality needs to be better,” to “Ratings need to be five points better,” in just a few steps.  That should even begin to feel more clear, positive and action-oriented to you.  The question that remains is how?

Create Clear Plans of Action

The key to a good plan of action is to quickly draft all the required action items you can think of and then ask yourself whether the objective would be accomplished if you only did the things on your list. Nine times out of ten, clients in my planning sessions quickly say, “Well no, we’d also need to…” Write it down!

Assign individuals to tasks, and due dates as well.  Get a well formed plan.  For our quality improvement example, I’d expect to see tasks like: a pre-survey of clients, a meeting to determine forward action, items about a few key things that are known that must change, monthly spot-checks of client attitude, a post-survey at six months, and a post-planning meeting to discuss results and next steps.

Establish Accountability

I could write many words on accountability, but let me just mention four key points to remember. It’s about: 1) celebrating success, 2) correcting course when needed, 3) problem solving, and 4) it is not easy for many people to do.

The action plan provides the groundwork and serves as one tool in creating accountability, but accountability is a regular, ongoing process that must be carried out and is the mark of leadership.  While you do not have to provide all the accountability throughout your organization, it is a core part of your leadership duty to ensure that it happens (if you are the owner, who will hold you accountable, after all?).

Do it, learn it, or seek help.  Find your business consultant/coach, CPA, or other professional advisor for guidance.

Wrapping Up

Resolutions can be kept.  Goals can be achieved.  You can make things happen.  Even in challenging economies, there is business to be had.  This formula is what I see successful organizations using to get ahead.

Dustin Walling is Principal of Dustin Walling Associates, a Seattle-based management consulting firm providing strategy and operational consulting.  For article topics, questions, or comments, Dustin can be reached at

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Managing for Challenging Times

DeclineEvery economic cycle poses unique challenges, meaning some businesses are hit harder than others, but nobody escapes forever.  Whether it’s election year uncertainties, mortgage meltdowns, credit crises or some other scare, forces simply conspire from time to time to generate a unique blend of self-induced societal hysteria easily rivaling the effects of any Starbucks five-shot venti mocha latte in the blood stream of the average business owner.  In short, it’s easy to be left feeling frazzled, frenzied, and more than a little paranoid about how to make a business not only survive but thrive in challenging times.

The cop-out answer is to declare that you must plan, and you must start in good times.  That’s true… but isn’t a good answer if times are already lackluster.  And as the sign on my office wall points out, “Thinking is Good.  Doing is Better.  Accomplishing is Best.”  Planning by itself is nothing more than mental exercise.  The key to thriving in challenging times is establishing a meaningful course, monitoring progress, and constantly taking corrective action to get there.

Focus on an Established Outcome.
Every business owner ought to have a clear sense of business direction – vision, mission, values – guiding strategy and daily operations.  (If not, seek help and get this foundation in place.)  In challenging times, your operative word should be “anticipate.”  If the goal is to modify course based on changing conditions, a crucial first step in anticipating, identifying, and coping with change is to first fix more firmly on the desired outcome.

Then attention can turn to identifying how to adapt. The classic way to do this is to take an honest look at the plusses and minuses of the business, as well as the opportunities and challenges presented by the competitive environment.  Known as a SWOT analysis (i.e., Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats), this exercise is a standard and powerful way to rapidly identify challenges and brainstorm solutions.  Most importantly, it gets us thinking throughout the business as well as outside the business in an attempt to predict the future.

Use the discoveries of SWOT and other analyses to determine new or changed initiatives for the future based on anticipated conditions.

Set Your Goals.
The really scary thing about setting goals is as soon as they’re set, you’re underperforming.  Until you hit them! Budgets.  Quotas.  Metrics.  Words that strike fear in the hearts of many.

The simple truth is most of the issues that can be identified with a business can be grouped, turned into trackable data, and have a goal attached.  Obviously, profit can receive a goal like “up 10%.”  Less obviously, the issue “Customers are unhappy,” can be turned around into the goal, “Customer complaints down 10%.”  Even less obvious, an initiative to “Improve work quality” can be tracked as “Dollar value of re-work.”

Look carefully.  I find that a lot of people fall into the trap of only looking at financial data, but the metrics above go much further to include Customer and Quality measures.  I could go on to include other categories of measures and several within each – and you should, too.  Instead of focusing only on the bottom line, consider the things that are critical to making your bottom line happen: Productivity; Use of Resources; Client Satisfaction; Business Development.  Perfect those factors and the bottom line will happen.  Put another way, keeping watch over fiscal measures alone is nearly never enough.  Refocus on the broader perspective, or get help doing so.

Measure Performance and Correct Course.
Remember the sign that said “Accomplishing is Best?”  Correcting course is the way to get there.  As you take action on the initiatives that you think will get you to your goals, do so with two commitments in mind.

First, that you will absolutely commit to a regular, objective review of the progress you and your team are making.  At least monthly.  Get together, look at the numbers, talk about what goals have been achieved and – most importantly – what to do about those that are not being accomplished.  The purpose of this meeting is to hold each other accountable for result.

Second, commit to results, not initiatives.  Give every idea its fair chance of success.  But be absolutely ruthless in your willingness to cross an initiative off and come up with something new to try if results aren’t happening.

These commitments take steadiness and incredible objectivity, but they’re absolutely critical to making progress.

A Brighter Tomorrow.
Sometimes it’s possible to get away with simply taking a casual approach to business and seeing what each day will bring.  And trust me… I see plenty of people with that attitude.  Challenging times are the worst of times for that approach.

Hone your direction.  Set goals.  Check and vigilantly tune your performance.  And ask for help when you need it.

Dustin Walling is Principal of Dustin Walling Associates, a Seattle-based management consulting firm providing strategy and operational consulting to small and medium businesses.  For article topics, questions, or comments, Dustin can be reached at

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