07/19/2012 01:17 pm ET Updated Sep 18, 2012

Why Strategic Plans Fail -- And How to Avoid the Pitfalls

It's true that perhaps the biggest "wrap" against investing time and resources in creating a strategic plan is that so many of them simply "gather dust" in three-ring binders, instead of serving as "living" blue-prints for business success.

Here, from our perspective, are some reasons why these pitfalls are real as well as tips on what you can do to avoid them when you develop your strategic plan.

Pitfall #1: The Plan
Sometimes the problem is the plan itself. Over a period of more than twenty years of being invited in to help clients "develop a new plan," we've seen many existing plans that lack the kind of concreteness, "actionability" and accountability that's necessary for a plan to be an effective business management tool. Plans composed of nothing but lofty generalities and aspirations without what we call "arms and legs," that is, concrete initiatives, responsible individuals and timetables, may generate initial enthusiasm. But they usually don't amount to the kind of practical management tool that ensures follow-through action and business improvement.

You can avoid this pitfall by making sure your plan contains concrete, measurable initiatives or projects -- we call them "Tactics" -- that can be assigned to specific individuals and tagged with specific completion dates. Then, manage to these dates and hold people accountable for "delivering."

Pitfall #2: The Process
Sometimes the problem is the process. Many plans are developed via the "golden eagle" approach, whereby external consultants swoop in, analyze the company and then prescribe their program for future success. Plans developed this way risk not generating much internal ownership on the part of the very people who must "make it happen," namely, the senior executive team and the workforce.

Avoid this pitfall by making sure that you and your executive team are deeply involved in all aspects of the planning process even if you bring in outside consultants. Conduct your own assessment of your current state -- we call it an "environmental scan" -- and formulate and voice your own opinions about the direction the company should take as part of the process. Instead of a "golden eagle," consider hiring an external consultant who is qualified to lead and "facilitate" the planning process but who maintains a "neutral" third-party role toward the content, ensuring that you define the substance of your plan and direction of your company.

Sometimes though, even when plans are developed this way, not enough people are involved in the process. Some executives view strategic planning as the exclusive purview of only the very senior-most executives -- what we call "planning in a closet." Since people are always less likely to support something they had nothing to do with, planning exclusively at "the top of the house" compounds the challenge of getting "buy-in" later.

To avoid this pitfall, go beyond your executive team. Involve and get input from strong performers, high-potentials and thought leaders elsewhere in the company. Give them a chance not only to react to tentative planning assumptions but also to input fresh planning ideas. Since nothing breeds commitment like involvement, plans that result from this approach start out with a much broader base of support than those that are hatched "in the closet" by a chosen few.

The fact that individuals well beyond the executive team can rightfully call the result "our plan" builds ownership for the plan as it's developing and makes mobilizing the entire enterprise easier later on. In this way, you significantly reduce the chances that your plan will fall by the wayside once it's completed.

Pitfall #3: The People
Finally, we have to admit that sometimes the problem is the people. Strange as it may seem, after all the effort and expense of developing a strategic plan, we have seen CEOs and executive teams simply fail to follow through in keeping the plan front-and-center and making it a visible, living blueprint for business-improving behavior and action. There are many reasons for this: unexpected, changing priorities, the challenges of "running the day-to-day business," etc., etc. But sometimes there seems to be a more fundamental cause. We'll simply call it the wrong "mindset."

Some senior executives seem to approach strategic planning as a "chore," a grudging obligation vs. the all-important dialogue about the shared destiny of the company that it truly is. There is a huge difference between these two attitudes. One is just "punching your ticket." The other approaches planning with some "fire in the belly" and recognizes that it can make the difference between "business as usual" and business transformation.

Frankly, this pitfall is difficult for even the most competent external consultants to overcome. If you're not motivated about controlling your destiny by defining and aspiring to a better future for you and your company, it's going to be difficult for anyone else to motivate you.

Our recommendation for avoiding this pitfall? Stop and think. Think of how critical this is. Consider that we acknowledge the importance of goal-setting in every aspect of life: academics, athletics, etc. We want our children to be goal-driven and goal-achievers. Same goes for our enterprises.

Changing your mindset toward planning as well as, again, heeding our recommendation (above) to involve larger numbers of people in the planning process are the best hedges against this pitfall as well. As one expert has said, you need to start "small fires" that gradually become "bigger fires." You want the fire of enthusiasm for the roadmap you've laid out for your company to grow large enough to sustain itself over time. You want it to inspire more and more people in your enterprise to act in accordance with this roadmap.

In this context, then, the bigger the fire, the harder it will be to put out. Once you harness the power of "ordinary people" to do "extraordinary things" in service of your shared future, you won't need to worry that your plan will be gathering dust on a shelf!

Ray Gagnon is Principal and Founder of Gagnon Associates, a management and organizational consulting firm with a long-standing practice in strategic planning, located in Metro-West Boston, Massachusetts, USA.