08/14/2014 03:14 pm ET Updated Oct 14, 2014

Strategic Planning: A Question of Executive Alignment

Whenever we're hired by a client to conduct a strategic planning process, we recognize, from the beginning, the first pre-requisite for success: quite simply, it is executive alignment.

When we're asked to come back, perhaps a year or two later, to help a client assess to what degree a plan is succeeding in making a difference for the enterprise, once again, we focus on the key question: "Since the plan was created, is there any evidence of improvement in the degree of alignment among the leadership team on the Company's direction and strategies?"

Most often, this kind of reassessment includes "sensing interviews" which we conduct with a "slice group" of employees in the company. It's important to include in these interviews not just senior folks, but individuals further down in the organization as well. If they're feeling evidence of more concerted effort and forward progress at their levels, then it's a good bet that a plan has gained traction and is moving a company forward.

Here's a comment from an actual client interview respondent:

"Prior to the planning process, we had a half-dozen, strong-willed people at the top with different views of where the Company was going and how to get there. Now they're under the same 'umbrella,' they agree on our direction and on who does what."
-- Client respondent
Year-One Strategic Plan Review Interview

Note both aspects of the improvement: "direction" and "how to get there."

Alignment: A Daunting Challenge
But the challenge of achieving this kind of improved alignment within a leadership team and, by extension, a company, is significant. Here's what David Nadler has said about the challenge of creating an effective leadership team in his classic book, Executive Teams:

If you stop to think about it, the odds are heavily stacked against a CEO who is trying to create an effective executive team; the equation simply involves too many variables. It would be hard enough if all you had to do was find a group of people each of whom has the competence and capacity . . . . But that is just the start. For the team to succeed it requires both balance and chemistry: the right balance of skills and expertise and the right mix of styles, personalities and relationships. To further complicate things, the balance and chemistry have to be consistent with the CEO's strategic agenda and leadership style.

-- from David A.Nadler, Executive Teams, 1998.

Clearly, for an executive team to be successful it must somehow take this "mix" of qualities and forces and "align" them toward leading the enterprise in an agreed-upon "direction" and "how to get there." But how do you go about achieving that kind of alignment?

Answering the Question: Alignment on What?
First of all, you must be concrete about the desired points of alignment. For these, we always draw heavily on the dean of all management gurus, Peter Drucker. As he has pointed out (Peter Drucker, "Theory of the Business," HBR) at the executive leadership level, assumptions about a business's environment, vision, mission and core competencies must "fit reality." They must fit one another; that is, they must be congruent. They must be known and understood throughout the enterprise in order to enable concerted effort and powerful synergies. And they must be tested constantly, because business conditions are always changing.

These are the high-level, truly "strategic" questions that planning teams must work through and become aligned on. And in aggregate, agreement on these questions will go a long way toward defining "direction" or "where a company's going."

. . . And How to Get There
But what about the "who does what" or "how to get there" part? As Thomas Edison put it, "vision without execution is hallucination." And we agree. Consequently, once planning teams have achieved high-level conceptual alignment on strategic direction, it's imperative to create a concrete, actionable plan or "playbook" for how to get to the desired destination.

In our work with clients this usually involves carefully articulating specific Goals to be achieved for key dimensions of the business -- quality, innovation, financial and organizational health, etc. -- the Strategies to achieve them, and for each Strategy, the specific, actionable deliverables that will be required for effective implementation. For accountability's sake, each of these deliverables must have an owner who commits to implementation by a clearly defined date.

Alignment Can't be Mandated
One thing is certain: the kind of alignment leadership groups require to function well as a team, let alone to effectively manage the enterprise, cannot be achieved by fiat. Individuals who populate the C-suite are usually too intelligent, forceful, independent and strong-willed for that. Instead, any strategic planning process that hopes to bring about executive alignment must be a carefully-designed, collaborative process that provides enough time for these high-powered individuals to arrive at a mutually-held view of their business environment and their company's place in it on their own. This is one of the reasons we call our approach to strategic planning "team-based."

Going about it this way may cost you time up front, but you will more than make up for this later as a unified team accelerates your path to "where you're going" and "how to get there."

Ray Gagnon is principal and Founder of Gagnon Associates, a management consulting firm with a long-standing practice in Strategic Planning located in Metro-West Boston, Massachusetts, USA.