Business Growth & Strategy

Opportunities Multiply As They Are Seized: Achieving Clarity & Accountability In Strategic Planning

The origins of strategic planning come from the military, dating as far back as the 6th Century BC. Even Webster’s New World Dictionary defines strategy as, “the science of planning and directing large-scale military operations of maneuvering forces into the most advantageous position prior to actual engagement with the enemy.”

Strategy is about surveying the limited resources available to you and determining how to use them to your advantage. You must analyze the landscape, searching for advantageous use of everything at your disposal while juxtaposing allocation of those precious resources with the productivity of your business, then calculate the risk tolerance for investment. It is historical record that limited supplies in General Patton’s hands during WWII resulted in far greater battlefield success than the same supplies in the hands of lesser generals. Why? Two characteristics defined Patton’s style and approach: clarity in purpose and communication, coupled with absolute accountability.

Certainly we can see how the term strategy translates so well into the business world where we are maneuvering our companies to compete in the marketplace, but have we lost the level of clarity and accountability that underscored strategy in its military usage? Has business strategy been softened from its military ancestry?

Let’s look at five important concepts related to clarity:

1. Communicate the Vision (Clarity of Urgency)

It is of the utmost importance to instill clarity of the organization’s vision in the minds on employees. Staff knowledge of strategy and the urgency for change is job one in gaining their meaningful contributions. One would not expect an infantry soldier on the battlefield to say, “I’m not sure what all the fuss is or if it even effects me.” Why would we allow employees to feel this way?

The organization’s leadership must articulate the overall vision to the rank and file through appropriate channels and make sure they feel a sense of urgency around the need for a shift. The urgency becomes the catalyst for change that is needed for employees to rally behind. Leadership must clearly and concisely define the problem statement as the foundation for the vision.  If the executive management team cannot compellingly articulate the change imperative, then it will be very difficult to effectively communicate the future vision and underlying reasons for change that are required in order to get everyone in the company on board.

2. Provide Clarity of the Overall Plan: Who, What and By When

In battle, military forces rely on tight coordination of resources to accomplish objectives. Timing is critical and missed deadlines cannot be tolerated because lives depend upon support forces accomplishing their sub-objectives in the overall attack strategy. Commanders insure that they have their resources in the right place at the right time in order to meet their obligations. This is possible to pull off because of plan clarity and detailed understanding of who must do what by when.

Businesses should also be providing the same level of clarity in planning, but rarely do. Instead, the silos of the organization are left to do planning on their own and the opportunity is missed to create a macro-orchestration of activity that can be leveraged in communications and tactical control.

3. Provide Clarity of Purpose and Priorities

Closely related to having clarity on the overall plan is goal of describing the purpose and priorities in a clear concise manner. Vagueness in this area leads to complacency and confusion within the ranks of the executive team, senior management group, line-level managers and employees.

4. Clearly Articulate the  CSFs

Critical Success Factors (CSFs) are the essential areas of activity that must be performed well if the organization is to achieve the mission, objectives and goals of the strategy. CSFs help everyone know exactly what’s most important. And this helps people perform their own work in the right context and so pull together towards the same overall aims.

The idea of CSFs was first presented by D. Ronald Daniel in the 1960s. It was then built on and popularized a decade later by John F. Rockart, of MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

Rockart defined CSFs as:

“The limited number of areas in which results, if they are satisfactory, will ensure successful competitive performance for the organization. They are the few key areas where things must go right for the business to flourish. If results in these areas are not adequate, the organization’s efforts for the period will be less than desired.”

Rockart also concluded that CSFs are “areas of activity that should receive constant and careful attention from management.”

5. Provide Clarity Related to Expected Individual Contributions

Everyone has a role to play in the successful execution of a strategy. Anyone left thinking, “someone will eventually tell me if I’m supposed to know something about this or take any action” represents a failure to bring clarity of task to the individual level.

Let’s look at five important concepts related to accountability:

1. Staff Accountability is Critical to Strategic Planning and Management Success

A plan is worthless without the staff accountability to bring that plan to life. Unfortunately, rather than punish employees that are not performing, managers often move these under-performing assets to other work assignments, thus taking valuable resources (time and money) from the organization. In order to accomplish strategic planning and management goals, individuals must be held accountable for executing on their specific tasks and some, including the CEO, may be accountable for reinforcement of the tasks.

2. Empowerment is More Important than Expertise

Staff incentive, understanding, and value to the execution of the plan are far more important than specific expertise. Employees that understand what is being done, why, when, and how they can contribute they become empowered team players. Alternatively, staff members that hoard information and create chiefdoms (“information managers”) do nothing to advance the organization – and instead care more about the advancement of their own personal careers.

3. True Accountability Requires Positive and Negative Consequences

Individual accountability cannot exist without consequences — both positive and negative. Teams and individuals must understand both the organization’s desired outcomes and their specific responsibilities in achieving those outcomes. Furthermore, their role and impact in meeting organizational objectives should be rewarded, while any behavior that impedes the achievement of organization goals should be appropriately punished.

4. Accountability Requires Time-frames

For accountability to exist, the team and all who are affected by the plan must understand what is to be accomplished and within what time-frame. After all, it is impossible to hold people accountable for accomplishing a key outcome if there no basis to measure. Similarly, an objective that is not bound by time can never be considered to be complete or have insufficient progress because the team working on it has unlimited time in which to complete it.

5. Trust, but Verify: Accountability Must Be Managed

Verification of performance is critical.  Setting up accountability in job descriptions, as well as incremental work related to strategic initiatives, allows for performance verification to take place.  As a side-note, managers and employees should be allowed to have strong input into their own job descriptions (if not write them entirely).  The direct supervisor of course has the final approval over the content, but the employee must fully “own” the job role.  This is true when reaching agreement on deadlines for strategic initiatives.  After fully understanding the role the employee is expected to play in relation to the strategic initiative, he or she should be responsible for submitting their “accountabilities” related to the initiative to their manager for approval.  Once finalized, job descriptions must be updated in coordination with Human Resource departments.  By keeping these job descriptions current, they will support the accountability factor needed to sustain execution standards of excellence over the long haul.

A Final Thought

Common wisdom tells us that achieving strategic planning and management goals requires an actionable plan that considers the people required to bring the plan to fruition. Sounds simple enough – yet, in practice both components (plan and people) have intricacies and uncertainties that must be carefully managed. People, in particular, must have clarity as to mission, purpose and role. Likewise, they must have accountability for accomplishing the individual tasks that are required to achieve the overarching organizational goals.

Organizational performance indicators and metrics help provide the ability to control and manage, as they signal the need for evaluation and analysis early when corrections to implementation tactics can be made more easily with fewer cost implications. With proper management controls in place, this approach allows those closest to the action to respond quickly and appropriately when it is needed – always operating within predefined spheres of control and in concert with the strategic goals. The goals are well known and understood by empowered employees, as their direct managers will have effectively communicated these goals to them, accompanied by the expectations for how they can directly contribute – allowing them to embrace the vision and fully participate in the tactical execution.

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Additional Strategic Planning Resources

Free Strategic Planning Article Compilations and PDFs:

–  Strategic Planning Monthly: September 2012 Edition

–  Free access to the Strategic Planning Monthly: Archive

–  Free Online Strategic Planning Articles Library

Free Strategic Planning PDF Downloads


Category: Business Growth & Strategy

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Avatar About the Author: Joe Evans

Since 2006, Joe Evans has been President & CEO of Method Frameworks, one of the world's leading strategy and operational planning management consultancies. The firm provides services for a diverse field of clients, ranging …

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  1. Tim T.

    October 17, 2012 at 6:56 am

    Great story, Joe. Really like the way your have outlined the elementsof Clarity and Accountability. I beleive that successful leadership must serve as a catalyst for positive change through real execution. It is this type of execution that can also cause opportunities to multiply. Along the same lines, I just read Sean Covey’s 4 Disciplines of Execution and found it to be incredibly enlightening. If you haven’t read it use this coupon code and get 45% off before Friday:4DXOct19 (http://bit.ly/covey4dx). Hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

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