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Creating an Action Strategy Plan

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A strategic plan is not a wish list, says Charles Dayton, president of Action Strategy. It’s not an idea of what your company should do; it’s a meticulously thought-out plan that can easily be translated into action. 

It’s a method that Dayton knows well. He has spent his entire career immersed in leadership development and strategic planning. 

An expert in weeding out the fake work from the real strategy, Dayton recently shared with Ratchet+Wrench his tips and tricks to creating an action strategy plan that works.

Can you define an action strategy plan?

Action strategy really integrates the execution and planning component. Once the plan and direction is defined, it’s taking that next step to figure out how to execute that plan.

We talk about three phases in the planning process. The first is strategic thinking. This is about understanding what is happening in the environment, changes to the market, the competition, and our customer profile. Ultimately, how does the customer find value so that we can align our services with that? It’s asking the right questions up front and considering what’s happening within the organization and outside the organization. 

There’s a book out there called “Good Strategy/Bad Strategy” [by Richard Rumelt].  It has some brilliant insights in terms of saying, “What problems are we trying to solve?” or, “What opportunities are we going to pursue?” Sometimes organizational leaders will be blind to the real issues. That may be because they avoid them or don’t know them. The starting point is to ask, “Where are the problems?” If our strategic plan doesn’t include those things, then it’s off target.

The next phase is strategic planning. This is all about exercising choice. We don’t have unlimited resources. We have to decide what our focus is going to be, where are we going to invest our time, energy and our staff. This has to do with identifying goals we want to pursue and strategies to accomplish those goals. We emphasize that goals should be specific and measurable. Especially with our staffing, we need some type of feedback mechanism. Are we finding success? Are we accomplishing those things? [Are we] having the courage to make hard decisions, involving staff in the planning process, consistently talking about the most important things. 

The third phase is strategic execution. First, you need to define the strategy driver, which could be a process, a policy or a project. Then you’ll narrow down the strategies you will use to successfully execute that driver. If it’s a process, the fix in that case will be looking at the process and how to streamline it. If it’s a policy, the strategy will most likely be communication or clarification. And if it’s a project, it usually has a beginning and an end point. The point of strategy drivers is to make sure we’re clear about the work that needs to be done to work toward accomplishing these goals. 

What should an action strategy plan look like?

There’s been a recent move toward plan simplification. Rather than the 50-page strategy document, it’s now more about boiling it down to a one-page focused document that identifies the critical metrics that let us know we’re on track and that we’re a healthy organization. When you’re simplifying, it forces you to focus. 

A strategic plan is not a wish list. Instead, it’s a careful set of choices. The value of the plan is that it becomes a communication document with staff. People often say, “We’re not on the same page.” This is your best attempt to create one page to say, “Here’s what we expect from activity surrounding customer loyalty. Here’s the process we want to fix by Oct. 20.”

This is how I suggest it should be organized:

1. Start by stating your goals. You might have goals around financial performance, goals around customers. As I said before, the goals should be specific and measurable. 

2. Then, list the values that will guide your decisions and behaviors.

3. List the key measures that will let you know the goal has been reached successfully. I suggest listing a target and then a trend. 

The next two categories would have to do with operational effectiveness. List the strategy or project, who is accountable, the resources needed and the date it should be completed by. There are a number of types of goals: financial goals, goals around obtaining and maintaining customer loyalty, operational effectiveness and learning and growth. In each of these categories, you’ll set specific goals and strategies. 

You’re known for warning against the concept of “fake work.” How do you define fake work? 

The idea comes from a book called “Fake Work.” Fake work is any activity that’s not strategic and it doesn’t provide value or build your capacity as an organization. If someone is asked to write a 50-page document and no one ever reads it, that’s fake work. If the customer doesn’t care about an activity, that’s fake work. A fake strategy would be a wish list or a bunch of things that could possibly be done. It’s not focused and thought up. A fake strategy is driven by what you think you ought to be doing.

How can you overcome fake work in your organization?

I think you have to compare it to the plan. Ask yourself: is that activity going to enhance customer loyalty or brand awareness? Does this activity help us build our capacity to do things better the next time? You can even go into the financial realm. We can spend a lot of time on activities that are not with our most profitable customers. 

Fake work can also be generated by organizational dysfunction. If people don’t communicate and so they just duplicate the same thing, duplication is good evidence there’s fake work going on. 

How can you assess your team’s capacity to execute the strategy you’ve outlined?

If we’re working with the team, we ask them a set of questions that have to do with focus. Are we clear about our goals and strategies? Do we have a good track record of collaboration? We self-assess and it helps us identify which things need to be in place. If the team reports that they don’t have a compelling vision, we’ll ask, “If you were in charge, describe what that would look like.” Those types of questions help people visualize what a well-run organization looks like. It helps develop concrete strategies for getting there. 

A lot of organizational effectiveness is creating the conditions for effectiveness. If you have the right people in place, the right systems and structures, that type of group will likely be successful. That’s why some of the leadership theorists say that the most important choices are always the people choices. They will be able to be agile and adapt to changing conditions. 

How can you make sure the plan you’ve developed is effective?

Execution is the most important thing. You need good strategy and execution to have good results. We emphasize that plans do not create results. What creates results is work and action. That’s why we have this company name. I think having a plan that’s visible and having discussions with staff, clarifying roles and responsibilities in the context of that strategy. 

For example, if a shop is adding a new service, they have to be trained on it. The conversation has to be, here’s our goal in getting this tool, we think it will provide this financial benefit, and so-and-so will be in charge. Often times, we find that people have a strategy around a new initiative; they tell their staff they have something new and then walk away assuming someone else is going to be in charge of it. Real clarity of ownership and accountability is needed. There has to be a step where you take that plan and get with the team, and just say, “Here’s who’s going to do what.”

In your experience, is there one area that people tend to get consistently wrong when it comes to action strategy?

On the execution side, everyone talks about communication being an issue. Underlying communication points to deeper issues with trust, how you see the world and your business. I was with one parts supplier a couple weeks ago, and they were talking about challenges with collaboration between these regions. The president said, “I like that entrepreneurial idea that each of them is in charge of what they’re doing and runs it as their own business.” That’s how he saw the world, but as they grew larger, there were a lot of complaints about standardizing things from one location to another. He had an underlying belief that an independent entrepreneurial model was working best. 

There’s a discussion that needs to be had that the model got us to where we are but is that going to work moving forward? Do we need to change the model and consequently change the belief? That’s underlying that trust in our paradigms and views of things. If things don’t change, then we don’t have the collaboration. If communication is an issue, the strategic plan needs to account for that and address it explicitly. 


Download a sample action strategy plan sheet here

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