Your Action Plan: Converting Your
Strategy into Action
By Bill Birnbaum, CMC
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"We think in generalities, but we live in detail."

Alfred North Whitehead


Whitehead's right. And his observation certainly applies to strategic planning. When planning, you'll first develop broad strategies. Then you need to support those strategies with specific steps to accomplish each. That's what action planning is all about.

Let's look at the process of developing those steps... let's examine what it takes to develop an effective action plan.

Who Develops the Action Plan?

First, we'll need to consider how to put the action plan together... simply who will develop it. In fact, the team-planning approach used to develop the strategic plan can also be used to develop the action plan. The same benefits are available to those employing the team-planning approach whether they're developing their strategic plan or their action plans. Clearly, those benefits include the broader input contributed by a greater number of individual participants.

A less obvious, but equally important, advantage of the team-planning approach is the commitment which comes from participation. Those involved develop a vested interest in seeing the plan through to its successful implementation. Simply stated, those involved in the plan's creation feel a part of it and a concern for its success.

The action planning team should be led by the manager responsible for the strategy which the action plan is to accomplish. Members of the team will include those whose assistance is required to implement the strategy that is, to accomplish each of the action steps. Often, the members of the action planning team will include those from two or more departments within the organization.

What's the Strategy?

It may sound silly to ask, "what's the strategy?" Think about it though. Perhaps your strategy is not clearly written. Or it's too general... thus subject to interpretation. If so, you'll need to rewrite the strategy prior to developing your action steps. And you'll need to communicate it. To discuss it with those responsible for its implementation. To make sure they understand it. Then they can begin to develop the action steps.

Who's Responsible?

Someone needs to "sign up" as responsible for the action plan. Someone must say, "yes, I'll do it." You've got to identify that one person who will be "carrying the ball."

This is an absolute necessity for monitoring the plan. You must know whom to ask "how is it going?" And you've got to know whom to offer help to if, for whatever reason, the strategy isn't being accomplished. The manager responsible for the action plan is the same person responsible for the strategy the action plan is intended to implement. He signed up for that responsibility way back at your strategy sessions.

What Action Steps?

The action plan includes a list of the action steps (tactics) listed in chronological order. Those steps, taken together, accomplish the intended strategy. Clearly written action steps are essential. You need to know (and agree upon) exactly what is to be accomplished.

A client company's management team had earlier developed an action plan calling for the marketing manager to investigate and report upon a particular market opportunity. When the due date for that action step arrived, the company president asked the marketing manager for that report. The president fully expected to receive a written report complete with an in-depth analysis.

Instead, the marketing manager replied, "That opportunity isn't all we earlier thought it to be. I suggest we forget it." The president asked, "Have you developed a written report?" "No," was the reply, "but I told you all about it at lunch last Thursday. Don't you remember?"

Don't fall victim to different perceptions of what's due. Make sure each action step is clearly written and agreed to by the manager responsible for its accomplishment.

Who's Responsible for Each Step? ... And When Is It Due?

Just as you need a "leader" to take responsibility for the overall action plan, you also need someone to take responsibility for each step within the action plan. Remember, if you don't reduce the steps to work assignments, they won't happen. And to reduce them each step to a work assignment, you've got to put someone's name on each.

Some years ago, we worked with a client company in a service industry. A particular individual who, while extremely capable in his field of specialization, had one managerial flaw. He failed to assign specific responsibilities to individuals. Instead, he'd suggest "we've go to...," or "we'd better...," or "we need to." And that's as close to a statement of work as he'd get. Problems? Sure. Those who worked for him would come out of meetings not knowing who was to do what. No wonder the organization had suffered implementation problems.

You'll also need to determine when each of the action steps is due. And to decide who's going to accomplish each action step. And which steps logically come before others. So you can list them in chronological order and not try to do them all at the same time. Then you can allocate resources in a logical order. And you can later use your chronological list for monitoring implementation.

What Resources Are Required?

Naturally, you're going to employ resources to accomplish each of your action steps. Those resources include financial, facilities and equipment, people and information.

Also you'll need to quantify the specific resources required to complete each of those action steps. And the earlier you quantify those resources, the better job you'll later do in their allocation.

Here's an interesting point on resources... most managers focus primarily on the financial resource. An obvious one, admittedly. But guess what?... The resource which turns up scarce more often than any other is the human resource. Most often companies just plain run out of time or talent... or time of their most talented people.

And that brings up a related issue. That of "front end loading." The vast majority of plans suffer from promising "too much too soon." And it's no surprise. Managers become so enthusiastic about accomplishing their plan that they tend to promise all of it in the near term.... a frequent problem.

Think about the resources required. Itemize those resources on your action plan... and be realistic about what you can accomplish by when.

The most complex (and generally the more significant) strategies require the collective efforts of two or more departments to implement. Here, each department must still develop its own list of action steps. But each department must also consider the action steps of the other departments on which its own performance is dependent. For example, a strategy calling for development of a new product would involve efforts (action steps) by the R&D, marketing and production departments - - the activities of each clearly dependent on those of the other two. To implement such strategies, management must encourage inter-department communication, understanding and cooperation. And obviously, the action planning team must include members from each of the departments concerned.

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