Identifying your values and purpose is the essential first step in building an Accountable Organization. Once defined, they shouldn't languish on a plaque—they must be integrated into the next critical step: strategic planning. You need a plan that works and the ability to work the plan.
A rigorous planning process that is in tune with your values and purpose allows all stakeholders to remain focused on their core business. Accountable Organizations require a consistent process and methodology for execution; without it, companies jump from initiative to initiative, appearing unfocused to both customers and employees. Aside from the obvious short-term costs associated with missed opportunities, failed projects, and inefficient implementation, companies without focus will struggle with accountability and trust. Management consultant Robert Shaw observes,
If an organization's strategic focus and business priorities constantly change, it will never earn the trust of those who work either within the organization or with it. Leaders should take note: They too must keep their strategic focus and business priorities steady in order to be trusted. When organizations and their leaders seek results at any cost, the trust they need for long term financial performance will be eroded.
The sequential logic in effective planning is the same at most companies: assessing the current state of business (situation analysis), determining your obstacles and opportunities, then breaking down the steps to achieving the plan (strategies, tactics, actions). A strong strategic plan serves as the ultimate frame of reference, the common measuring stick for everyone in your organization. It allows the company's activities to be compared against its values, thus upholding integrity.
One innovative approach to strategic planning is described by Gordon Shaw, Robert Brown, and Philip Bromily in an influential article for the Harvard Business Review. The authors report how storytelling has been integrated into planning at various parts of 3M, resulting in what is called "strategic narratives"—"not only to clarify the thinking behind their plans but also to capture the imagination and the excitement of the people in their organizations."
As the article points out, strategic narratives allow for easier detection of leaps of faith and logic, allowing for quicker remedies. Each plan is unmistakably specific to its company. And most important, the story that the narrative strategy tells—complete with setting, dramatic conflict, and resolution—truly inspires the reader. Where bullets leave empty gaps, a strategic narrative fleshes out relationships. Its authors and readers have a personal stake in its story, for they are among its cast of characters. Shaw and his coauthors conclude,
A well-written narrative strategy that shows a difficult situation and an innovative solution leading to improved market share can be galvanizing—and it is certainly more engaging than a bulleted mandate to "increase market share by 5%." When people can locate themselves in the story, their sense of commitment and involvement is enhanced. By conveying a powerful impression of the process of winning, narrative plans can motivate and mobilize an entire organization.
One further point on strategic narratives: It's said that short stories are the most difficult to write—the format requires precision and economy of language. However, a well-crafted short story can be more compelling than a rambling full-length novel. I believe the same is true when it comes to writing a strategic narrative: precision and economy are important. If you can't limit your narrative to ten or fifteen pages, you've probably littered it with clutter and cloudy thinking. Once you have the narrative completed, you can summarize its vital components for quick reference and tracking progress.
Whatever your approach, your strategic plan needs buy-in from all members of the organization to be meaningful. This is a common challenge for companies, particularly large ones. While your organization may be masterful at planning, it may not be as effective at execution. At FWI, we've incorporated our annual goals and objectives and our values and purpose statements on a single page. Every employee has a copy of our strategic plan and receives a monthly update on our progress. Communication is vital in turning the strategic plan into reality, but it's not enough. To successfully implement your plan, you must also gain the commitment of everyone it relies on.
Robert Bruce Shaw, Trust in the Balance: Building Successful Organizations on Results, Integrity, and Concern (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997), 78.
Gordon Shaw, Robert Brown, and Philip Bromily, "Strategic Stories: How 3M Is Rewriting Business Planning," Harvard Business Review (May–June 1998): 42.