Why Strategic Plans Languish and Fail

Posted on: 04/15/22
Written by: Peter C. Atherton, P.E.

There’s no question that strategic planning is essential for firm success. Yet despite this, the vast majority of strategic plans fail or fail to be fully or successfully implemented. Why is this the case and, more importantly, what can we do to ensure that our team and firm are on the winning side?

“To truly succeed where few others do, we need to do things differently.” –Peter C. Atherton, P.E.

From my perspective as both a strategic planning participant at manager, principal, and firm owner levels and now as a strategic planning facilitator and execution consultant, here are the top 10 reasons most strategic plans either languish or fail:

1. No real desire for change. This could be a function of already being on a well-defined and strategically aligned path to a better future. This could also be a function of firms and leadership teams being content with ‘as is’ or being trapped by today’s comfort, money, and momentum.

2. Fear of transparency. This can be a function of firm history or individual and collective mindsets. It can take some time to arrive at what’s best. The fact is, however, that greater transparency in terms of sharing our mission, vision, goals, results, and the drivers of success is essential for both higher levels of engagement and performance.

3. People ranked third. Is our primary focus clients and revenue? If so, where do our people come in? Our people are our greatest assets when it comes to strategic plan ‘buy-in’ and execution as well. Putting them at center also positions us to execute a better ‘war for talent’ and to be able to grow and prosper through the ‘great resignation’.

4. No urgency for new action. It can be hard to invest in our future, especially when things are good – but it’s essential that we do. To succeed strategically, we must continuously adjust and routinely make bold moves. As leaders, we must have a healthy fear of the status quo and feel compelled to take active steps toward a better future. We must also be willing to count the internal and external cost of inaction.

5. Too busy for different. This can be at leader and manager levels or throughout the firm. No matter where the ‘busy’ resides, it’s always leadership’s problem to solve. This is solvable through better strategy, capacity-building, and discipline but it must be addressed head-on if your strategic plans are to succeed.

6. Practitioners first. Despite the mandates for us to operate at higher levels, we often don’t. Many of us may need to do some ‘soul-searching’ and decide whether we want to be a ‘practitioner in a leadership position’ or a ‘leader who also practices’. We can work with either and we can more confidently move toward the latter. We just need to know in order to build a plan and a team positioned to succeed.

7. Silos. Independent group revenue and profit goals aggregated into the company’s plan undermines strategic success. This operational model limits ‘corporate’ investments and key leader ownership of shared results. Business and organizational structure evolution must be on the table for optimal and effective strategic plan execution.

8. Non-attractive or not inspiring enough mission, vision, and values. The process to develop an attractive and inspiring mission and vision and fully define our values is often minimized. It shouldn’t be. It does take time, effort, iteration, and a new way of thinking – but without having these in place, how can we really leverage our difference?

9. Not putting in the work. This can be as simple as realizing that the plan itself is not the goal. The fact is, establishing our strategic plan is just the beginning. One of the better analogies I’ve heard and share is related to hiking. We can think of all the time, effort, energy, and focus needed to produce a great strategic plan as getting us to ‘base camp’. From there, the path to the top – our desired future – is much steeper and less defined. The better our preparation and team design and execution, the better our chances to achieve our best results – and do so with greater engagement and harmony.

This can also be related to having a ‘too streamlined’ or ‘too narrowly’ focused planning process. Our planning must be designed to dig into and address both the presenting, as well as the underlying issues and opportunities in order to secure all the necessary buy-in and alignment to succeed. Not doing so is equivalent to making it to ‘base camp’ with too few resources and too limited a team for the climb that matters most.

10. Lack of communication. A full commitment to communicating the plan, goals, initiatives, results, and the ‘road ahead’ is required in order for the strategic plan to be understood, embraced, and acted upon. The strategic plan must be effectively communicated throughout the firm and integrated into almost every facet of operations. When we grow weary in our communications as leaders and leadership teams, we’re on the right track and the word is likely just getting out. We must never stop being excited about our future or our fully executed strategic plan if it is to succeed.

“The better our preparation and team design and execution, the better our chances to achieve our best results – and do so with greater engagement and harmony.” –Peter C. Atherton, P.E.

Effective strategic planning and execution is a process. There are certainly important and meaningful milestones along the path, but implementing a survey and having a one or two-day retreat followed by a report and a commitment by a few key people does not – and will not – work for most. Strategic planning and execution is ultimately about choices, sacrifices, and investments in how best to balance and leverage the best of our past and present with the better future of our choosing. To truly succeed where few others do, we need to do things differently. My hope is that by understanding and proactively working to avoid the elements on this list, you’ll be better positioned to realize your better future both faster and more effectively.


About the Author: Peter C. Atherton, P.E. is an AEC industry insider with 29 years of experience, having spent more than 24 as a successful professional civil engineer, principal, major owner, and member of the board of directors for high-achieving firms. Pete is now the President and Founder of ActionsProve, LLC (www.actionsprove.com), author of “Reversing Burnout. How to Immediately Engage Top Talent and Grow! A Blueprint for Professionals and Business Owners”, and the creator of the I.M.P.A.C.T. process.

Pete is also the host of The AEC Leadership Today Podcast and leads The AEC Leadership Mastermind.

Pete works with AEC firms to grow and advance their success through modern and new era focused strategic planning, executive coaching, leadership and management development, performance-based employee engagement, and corporate impact design. Connect with him at pete@actionsprove.com

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