What makes a good action plan?
President and CEO, CSSP, Inc.
Looking over action plans with a client this week, I was struck by a comment one of the team members made. "Some of our action plans" he said, "have delivered great results, and improvements to our top line and our bottom line...and some have just generated meetings and activities and no results." When we considered some of the objectives that had - and had not- delivered results, I noticed a couple of things.
- Specificity is key to getting results.
This is true of objectives - the more specific the result, the more likely the action plan is to produce a real result - and it is also true for the steps in action plans. When doing an action step "Attend ABC trade show in November" is far easier to act on than "Research customers and competition in our new market". With objectives "Sell $5 million in product to the medical market" delivers results - and "Balance workload between our plants" just generates analysis.
- When you don't know what to do, you can waste a lot of time not knowing it.
This makes writing action plans really hard sometimes. When writing an action plan, you have to at least know enough about the objective to figure out what steps to take. Many of us take the expedient - and frustratingly unproductive - step of having meetings to determine our next steps. No matter how you disguise it, a plan to plan is going to end up wasting someone's time. If you don't know what to do, or what all the steps will be, it's perfectly OK to go outside your company for help. In fact, it's often the very best thing you can do. You can rent this help with a consultant, or bring the capability in-house by hiring a new person from the outside, but you can often short-cut past years of trial and error just by getting someone who understands what you are trying to do from outside your company. One caveat: when looking outside your company for expertise, be sure you are getting expertise that will truly fit your need. Hiring an expert to help you sell to the IT industry can be great, but if you hire someone with 10 years of commodity experience to work in your specialty company, don't be surprised if most of that experience is counterproductive.
- Focused, dedicated resources make a bigger difference than all the meetings in the world.
Having someone split their time between strategic and non-strategic tasks is a difficult reality in the world of small to mid-sized companies. Even in larger companies, this expedient is hard to avoid. But when it comes to strategic objectives, it is far too easy for someone to postpone working on the new problems - ones we don't know how to tackle - to make time for the old problems, which we do know how to tackle. Over and over, I have seen this effect slow down and even stop action plans - and over and over, I have seen companies succeed when the objective is big enough to warrant a dedicated person who doesn’t have old, familiar problems to fall back on.
So what can you do to take advantage of these lessons? First, make sure you press your team hard on coming up with specific, measurable results as objectives. Second, take the time to figure out what needs to be done before writing the action plan. This may require some time and money, but it will lead to much better execution down the road. Third, don't be afraid to bring in outside expertise - and dedicate it to your objective. Finally, consider dedicating a person to the objective full-time. Anything big enough to be one of your company's top strategic objectives could well be big enough to warrant a full-time, experienced caretaker - and the part-time, inexperienced caretaker you had in mind might not drive the same results, even if that would be quicker and easier.
If you would like to discuss action plans or other stratgic planning issues, please contact Robert Bradford at