How to bring strategic vision to life

September 25, 2019

Annette Craven grew up on a farm.

So, it should come as no surprise that she sometimes views the world through farming analogies. Today, as an executive coach, transition strategist, and faculty member with Capella University, Craven sees clear similarities between farming and the strategic planning process. You prepare the soil (determine the need for the strategic plan and involve the right players). Plant the seeds (generate discussions among key stakeholders about organizational vision and objectives). Water them diligently (keep senior leaders apprised of the plan development). Yank out the weeds (identify and remove barriers and obstacles to strategic priorities). And after months of careful cultivation, you harvest the crop and store it in a silo until it’s time to sell (develop the final report encapsulating all of the details of the strategic plan).

The problem is that after all that effort, too often strategic plans are left to languish in the silo, says Craven, PhD, CPA, CPC, ELI-MP, CTDS. In other words, it never goes to market. After potentially months of hard work and deep, explorative thinking, the strategic plan winds up just sitting on the shelf (or obscure network drive) never to see the light of day again.

“It’s such a shame after all of the hard work, countless meetings, and diligent critical thinking that strategic plans are so often essentially abandoned,” Craven says. “A critical component of the strategic planning process is to share the plan with the broader organization in a way that creates a culture of planning for every employee.”

Distill and share

Sharing a strategic plan does not mean emailing a 300-page report as a PDF one time to all employees. That simply won’t cut it, Craven says. Rather, she emphasizes the need to create a culture of planning. By that, she means adopting an organization-wide mindset that the strategic vision and priorities are to be actively and continually discussed and measured against. Every employee’s personal goals and job descriptions should ladder up to the organization’s strategic priorities. Employees should have clarity and clear direction.

“It’s so important to share the vision contained in a strategic plan in a way that makes it meaningful and actionable for every employee,” Craven says. “If you don’t share it, employees will often automatically assume that there is no strategic plan. That it doesn’t exist. That there is no direction. But it’s also important to note that sharing it is not a one-time event. It should be an ongoing strategy. An organization’s strategic priorities need to be discussed and referenced continually by all employees at every opportunity.”

Craven also advocates for keeping it simple when it comes to cascading a strategic plan throughout an organization.

“Don’t overwhelm employees with the excruciating details and background contained in most strategic plans, but instead distill the plan down to its most inspirational elements,” Craven says. “Keep the focus on the go-forward vision. Communicate the strategic priorities in a way that is easily understood and that will excite employees.”

To accomplish that, Craven recommends adhering to three key principles– transparency, ongoing communication, and openness to innovation–as the bedrock for developing a culture of planning.

“It has to come to life and grow like a garden,” Craven says. “A plan is nothing more than an idea. It doesn’t come to life unless it is transparent and visible. You have to live it every day.”

Start at the top

No matter how well-intentioned the organization’s leaders are, if they don’t practice these three principles, a culture of planning will not develop, Craven says. They need to set an example. If they do so, others will likely follow.

“Employees will see what the leaders are doing and mimic it,” Craven says. “If leaders don’t share, or lack transparency, employees won’t share either. That helps no one.”

Instead, Craven says it is critical that leaders at every level reference the organization’s priorities and vision in every meeting. Every employee should be asked, “How does what you are working on relate to the overall strategic priorities? How are you doing in achieving those goals? What are you doing that is not aligned and should those activities continue?”

Enter accountability

A benefit of building a culture of planning that is grounded in an organization’s strategic priorities is clear accountability for all staff. In this environment, employees should have clarity as to how their work contributes to the overall strategic vision.

“We no longer live in an era of companies being successful just because of the CEO,” Craven says. “Today’s companies are successful because of employees who feel informed, valued, and empowered. That happens when they know how they fit in with the vision and why they matter. At the end of the day, a thoughtfully communicated strategic plan creates accountability and sets everyone on the same course to achieve a common goal.”

Develop the skills that help to turn strategic vision into action with an online MBA degree from Capella University.

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