Forget Strategy, Worry About Execution

Developing strategic plans is a common endeavour in many libraries, and one that some libraries struggle to make meaningful.

According to Wikipedia, strategic planning is the formal consideration of an organisation’s future course. All strategic planning deals with at least one of three key questions:

  1. What do we do?
  2. For whom do we do it?
  3. How do we excel?

Many library strategic plans address at least one of these questions. However, it’s not just enough to have a strategy. Harvard Business School research shows that 90% of strategies fail due to poor execution. A Booz & Company survey of more than 1800 executives found that 53% say that the way they create value is not well understood by employees or customers.

In other words, you may be in the same waka together, but if the crew doesn’t know where it’s heading or what they need to do to get there, your waka is unlikely to reach its destination.

Now, I’m not advocating for doing away with your strategic plan. I’m suggesting that the strategic plan should be seen as the focus for your operational plans rather than a separate and distinct product.

As a library manager you’ve probably presented the library’s strategic plan to many groups, including library staff. But how many staff could tell you what the library hopes to achieve at the end of the year?

In order to succeed, a strategic plan requires effective execution which can only really come about through consistent and repeated communication with library staff. For communication to be effective it must incorporate the following:

  1. It must be candid
    Discuss the strategic plan in a straightforward manner. Forget grandstanding and political spin.
  2. It must be clear
    Discuss the strategic plan in ‘plain English’. Make it easy for staff to understand by explaining jargon and management terms.
  3. It must be at the right level of detail
    Explain how the strategic plan will affect the daily work of the people you are communicating with. Discuss priorities and who will be responsible for ensuring these are achieved.
  4. It must be timely
    All work should lead towards the outcomes outlined in the library’s strategic plan. This requires consistent and repetitive meetings with staff – at launch, at monthly meetings, at performance meetings, and at any time where there may be competing priorities.
  5. It must be relevant to the interests and needs of the participants
    Hold department, team and individual meetings, to discuss the strategic plan from these perspectives. Staff always want to know “what does this mean for me?”
  6. It must involve the right people
    The best way to get buy-in from staff is to involve them in developing the strategic plan. This doesn’t necessarily mean everyone attends full day planning sessions. It could mean you use the whiteboard in the staff room to ask for and collate suggestions. It could mean that attendance is voluntary (which may in itself reveal some surprises!). Or it could mean that strategic ideas are voted on at staff meetings. Not everyone needs to be involved, but everyone should be able to be involved, in some way, if they wish to. To make good decisions you must seek the perspectives of a wide range of people.
  7. It must ensure mutual understanding of content and conclusion
    Remember, the strategic plan and its execution should be a discussion or conversation rather than a presentation or an email attachment.

Here’s an example of how I have seen a strategic plan effectively communicated. Within the first week of my joining a company I attended a staff meeting to learn about the company’s strategic plan. It took just 15 minutes and included repeated repetition of key focus areas. At each subsequent monthly staff meeting, the company’s progress towards meeting these outcomes was highlighted with specific mention to significant outcomes. Once again it took just 15 minutes. Team and individual performance meetings all centred on contributions towards the strategic plan. I may not have known the details of the strategic plan (I never saw a written document), but I certainly knew what I was expected to achieve, what was expected of my team, and what was important to the company.

What suggestions do you have to make your strategic plan more than just a document that is difficult to find or remember?

A version of this article appeared in Library Life: Te Rau Ora, 24 February 2011.

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