Why Many Planning Sessions Are a Waste of Time and How to Fix Them

too many priorities

I was asked to facilitate an annual strategic planning retreat with a senior leadership team. The CEO sent me their draft agenda for the session. Hmm…oh, oh….

Looking at the typical approach they’ve used before, four common strategic planning problems immediately popped out:

  • The agenda was loaded with about 17 project/operational presentations/reviews and updates. Yikes! Nap by PowerPoint. Hopefully, the snoring won’t wake others up.
  • The session focused on operational and tactical issues. With these highly technical leaders, there’s lots of picking fly specks out of the pepper.
  • Reporting and data dumping left little time for strategic thinking and prioritizing. Drenched by the information firehose, it’s hard to look at the big picture.
  • Leadership and culture development to build capacity for implementation planning wasn’t on the agenda. This magical thinking causes many leaders to come back from planning sessions and direct their managers to, as Jean Luc Picard, captain of the USS Enterprise, commanded, “Make it so.”

70 Percent of Planning and Change Efforts Fail

This typical approach to strategic planning is a prime example of why decades of research like this is now too common; a Harvard Business Review article by Michael Beer and Nitin Nohria on “Cracking the Code of Change” concludes, “the brutal fact is that about 70% of all change initiatives fail.”

An IBM survey of over 1,400 leaders responsible for designing, creating, and implementing change in their organizations found “only 20% of respondents are considered successful in managing change.”

A McKinsey study of 500 organizations found, “more than 70 percent of failures are driven by what we would categorize as poor organizational health… taking deliberate steps to move the needle on the soft stuff is a vital element in organizational transformations, though it’s often overlooked.”

As the old saying goes, “if you don’t change direction, you’ll end up where you’re headed.” This leadership team was heading straight for at least one of seven common causes of failure — partial and piecemeal programs.

What’s Your Plan for Planning?

Most “strategic planning” isn’t strategic. Too often, teams get mired in operational details and debates over minor issues. Agendas run overtime, and discussions wander into the weeds.

Here’s what we find are keys to make planning sessions highly productive:

  • Updates and reports need to be condensed to succinct points of information. Restrict slides and provide a summary format. The key output of these brief presentations needs to answer the “so what?” strategic question.
  • Use anonymous surveys, third-party assessments, or other safe ways for participants to voice concerns and have real conversations about what they feel are the biggest issues to be addressed. These are often very touchy, political — and avoided. Smothering silence can be deadly.
  • Funnel all the plans and actions down to three or four Strategic Imperatives and set up deployment strategies around those. Avoid the way too common trap of priority overload.
  • Planning and budgeting focus on maximizing capital and operational dollars. How about the other equally vital — and very scarce — resource; time? Are leaders using their personal and team time strategically? How do you know?
  • A great strategy with poor execution is useless. A strategy is only as good as the team implementing it. Leadership team dynamics and culture development are entwined.
  • Aspiration and application are often disconnected by a massive capability gap. I might aspire to be an Olympic athlete, but my ability to compete at that level is rather limited! Build organizational capacity through leadership and culture development.
  • Planning sessions focus on what needs improvement and what needs to change — on how to get from where we are now to where we want to be. That can be daunting and sometimes tiring.
  • An excellent retreat starting point is to list all the accomplishments and successes of the past year. What does this tell us about our strengths and can-do possibilities?

Reversing the Death-by-Stupid-Busy Spiral

Many leadership teams aren’t taking care of busyness. Here’s what helps leadership teams pull out of the stupid-busy death spiral they foster through weak strategic leadership:

  • All Eyes on the Prize— agree on what success looks like, what you value most, and why you exist.
  • Behave Yourself— define the leadership behaviors that reduce eye-rolling and snickering and show it’s not just more yadda, yadda, yadda…
  • Pull Yourself Together— get your team working together and stop undermining each other once you leave meeting rooms.
  • Kill Lists— identify meetings, projects, initiatives, sloppy e-mail habits, committees, and strategies to chop or sharply reduce.
  • Choose ‘Em and Lose ‘Em— pick the two or three (four tops) strategic (high leverage) imperatives (must-do) with the highest potential, and park or kill the others.
  • Get Serious— put your top leaders and best cross-functional teams together and give them the mandate and resources to deliver on your Strategic Imperatives
  • Reduce the Moose— use an anonymous and confidential process to raise the key issues/barriers (moose, elephants, or 800-pound gorillas); secretly vote on the top 3 or 4 and address them.
  • Culture Rift, Drift, or Shift— the best strategies and plans die if the leadership team doesn’t define and actively shape the culture that boosts or blocks implementation.

Getting your leadership team away from daily operations for a few days of reflection and planning is incredibly effective. I am clearly biased since I’ve facilitated so many retreats; when offsite retreats are well-designed and facilitated (a bit more bias), the return on investment is exponential.

The warning of Warren Bennis reflecting on key lessons he learned in Still Surprised: A Memoir of a Life of Leadership rings true for strategic leadership; “… the truly important things often compete with crisis management for a leader’s time, and the truly important things often lose out.”

The post Why Many Planning Sessions Are a Waste of Time and How to Fix Them appeared first on The Clemmer Group.

For over three decades, Jim Clemmer’s keynote presentations, workshops, management team retreats, seven bestselling books, articles, and blog have helped hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. The Clemmer Group is the Canadian strategic partner of Zenger Folkman, an award-winning firm best known for its unique evidence-driven, strengths-based system for developing extraordinary leaders and demonstrating the performance impact they have on organizations. Check out www.clemmergroup.com for upcoming webinars and workshops.

Website: http://www.clemmergroup.com

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