Why do so many strategic plans completely fail to materialize?
One fundamental reason is that while they describe the plan and resources in nearly infinite detail, they categorically fail to address the issues that exist “below the water-line.”
And as we’ve seen in the opening article of this series, that opens the door for our collective survival brain to go hyper-active.
In this article, we’ll discuss two essential strategies for getting below the water-line and keeping the limbic brain at bay.
Engage in pro-active strategic analysis
Every organization in (or around) Predictable Success has some form of strategic planning. It may be formal or informal, highly structured or free-form. While there are benefits and disadvantages to each of these issues, we need to be careful not to assume that the right strategic planning methodology will suddenly silence our limbic antagonist.
When it comes to strategic analysis and planning, what you put in is what you get out.
If you allow your collective limbic brain to high-jack the process, your entire strategic planning process will be based on surviving and not thriving. This is surprisingly difficult to catch because it is happening subconsciously. We may use language like innovation and risk. To make it even less clear, we may even take unwise and unnecessary risks in order to keep our limbic brain happy.
So if they look similar and sound similar, how do we discern limbic strategy vs. prefrontal strategy.
Here are a few tells that the limbic brain is having its way.
Reactivity is one of the most important signs. If your strategic planning is done primarily as a response to some external threat, you can all but guarantee you’re in limbic strategy mode. You want to get ahead of this by engaging in strategic analysis before beginning your strategic planning and decision-making.
You can function reactively even in a structured program. This happens when recent events carry more weight than past events simply because of their proximity. So if you find yourself at an annual planning session talking about events in the last two weeks (or, if we’re honest, two hours), that is a warning sign you will want to heed.
Both optimists and realists experience anxiety, so don’t mistake optimum for lack of anxiety or realism for the presence of anxiety. Instead, have each team member examine their motives before engaging in strategic planning. Are you worried about imminent failure? Great. Raise up a flag so that we can work on the challenge, but make sure you separate the fear from the actual analyses and planning.
Overvaluing past strategies
In How the Mighty Fall, Jim Collins says,
When the rhetoric of success (“We’re successful because we do specific things.”) replaces penetrating understanding and insight (“We’re successful because we understand why we do these specific things and under what conditions they would no longer work”), decline will very likely follow.
Just because something worked in the past does mean it is suitable for the future or even the present. But it does mean that we are more likely to cling to it simply because it feels safe. That is the essence of limbic strategy.
So set a time aside to list what you did and examine why they worked and under what conditions they would no longer work. Our favorite tools for this process are the PESTLE analysis and the SWOT analysis.
Identify upcoming key transitions
Most strategic planning addresses the issues that are “above the water-line.” We have budgets, org charts, processes, and asset allocations. But what these plans fail to consider (and a big part of why the vast majority of strategic plans fail) is what is happening “below the water-line.” And that is the underlying changes necessary to change the way you think and behave so that you can change the organization’s strategy, tactics, actions, and results. These are Key Transitions.
Key Transitions can best be stated in the form:
To achieve this strategy, between now and [time], we need to transition from being/doing [X] to being/doing [Y].
As an illustration, for Kodak in the 1990s to have effectively responded to the rise in digital imagery, one Key Transition might have been:
To achieve this strategy, between now and 2000, we need to transition from being a chemical-based film and paper business to be the premier provider of tools for taking, managing, and sharing great photographs.
Identifying Key Transitions allows you to intentionally manage the entire strategic planning and implementation process. In addition, it shines a light on the more limbic aspects of your strategy and helps prevent derailment.
It also sets you up in the best position to handle the next step in the process, pre-determining the internal implications of your strategic objectives and the Key Transitions necessary to fulfill those objectives.
And that’s what we will unpack in the final article of the series as we show you how to pull all of this together into a highly actionable plan that will work!
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