12/05/2012 10:17 am ET Updated Feb 04, 2013

So You've Got a Strategic Plan -- Now What?

You've just developed a new strategic plan for your company. You're pleased -- even excited -- about it. And so are the other 10 or 12 people on the planning team. So far so good.

But now you face the next and most critical challenge: How do you get the rest of the company on board? Because without their "buy-in" and active participation, successful implementation is impossible. And without implementation your plan is just a document on a shelf.

We always tell our strategic planning clients that this is the point at which a strategic plan is most vulnerable. Because the transformation from words and numbers on a page to a living game-plan that's reflected in day-to-day actions across your company is not something that just happens. It takes a concerted, consistent effort over time.

What follows are the five basic steps any leadership needs to take to create awareness, build understanding and generate action in support of a new strategic plan. Over more that 25 years of helping clients create and implement their strategic plans, we've seen this approach work time and again. Here's how to make it work for you:

First: Create the Business Case
Just as you would for any other business initiative, build the case for why this plan is a must for your company. If it calls for extreme change, describe why the status quo is unsustainable. Be honest about what's at stake: loss of market share, reduction in workforce, maybe even the very long-term viability of your company itself. Use data. Demonstrate whenever possible. We've seen leaders trot out quality defects at employee meetings to dramatically demonstrate the need for a new course of action. The point here is to generate broad-scale awareness and understanding of the absolute imperative for a new direction.

Second: Clarify and Communicate the "New Way"
You've established beyond a doubt that the status quo is no longer acceptable - is maybe even dangerous. So now you need to make the new vision for the future crystal clear for everyone. Of course, it needs to make sense in the context of the "business case" you've already made. If quality has been the problem, the new direction should be in the direction of improved quality. If the marketplace you've traditionally sold to has been contracting, then diversification may be your answer. But whatever the new trumpet call for the future may be, you need to define it clearly and communicate it relentlessly across your enterprise.

We recall with great respect, one of our clients, the CEO of one of the world's largest trans-nationals, literally and personally trundling his "new vision" presentation around the world to key manufacturing installations for the better part of the first year of his new strategic plan.

Third: Enlist Your Core Team
You can't do it alone. No doubt several key leaders were involved in hatching your new strategic plan in the first place. Exploit and enlist this key network of early adopters and ensure that they fan out across your company and "spread the gospel" of the new way just as you are. If necessary, make changes in key organizational positions that are critical to the new plan. You really can't succeed in making your new plan a living force if your "core team" is composed of non-supporters or even skeptics.

Fourth: Mobilize Commitment
Hopefully, in the previous steps you've brought your organization along the continuum from awareness to understanding to commitment. Now it's time to create opportunities for people to act on that commitment. Look for ways to involve internal "experts" who are closest to the work in improving how the work gets done.

One of our clients created teams composed of employees and suppliers to focus on reducing the integral cost of producing key product components. A banking client of ours used an internal team to improve the speed with which lost or stolen debit cards were returned to customers. Yet another improved product yield from a key manufacturing operation from 49 percent to 64 percent, with the help of a team of employees from the shop floor.

This kind of activity often requires solid process and teaming skills. If you don't have these skills internally, buy them for a time, but make sure that you can ultimately transfer these skills internally to eliminate dependency on outside consultants long-term. We recommend you look into approaches like GE-Work-Out, business process improvement, continuous improvement and other methods to build these important capabilities for organizational renewal and business improvement into your company.

Fifth: Solidify Your Gains
Once you've succeeded in generating broad-based company activity that's aligned with your plan, you need to make sure your internal systems and structures -- which may be relics of the past - reinforce the new direction. So, for instance, if past performance-management systems reinforced "lone ranger" behavior, but teamwork is now the order of the day, you'll need to change systems accordingly. Same with rewards and recognition. New training programs may need to be developed, old ones scrapped. The "org chart" may need rejiggering, and so on.

From "Exception" to a "Way of Life"
The idea behind all this is to start with "small fires" that grow to "bonfires" of activity over time, building on initial "small wins." At the outset, your efforts will feel strange; they will be exceptions to the "normal" way of doing things. The objective, over time, is for them to become "the way we do things around here."

First thing you know, it will begin to feel "natural" for people to be acting in ways that align with your strategic road-map for the future. And your strategic plan is no longer just a document; it has become a living blue-print for the way your company operates each and every day.