by Denise Harrison, Executive Vice President & COO

Strategic Planning Expert

Action plans are the detailed road maps that turn your strategic plan into results.  Action plans support the key strategic objectives that your team selected as the most important projects to work on for the next 12 to 18 months.  If your action plans achieve the objectives, then you are moving towards achieving your strategy – if not, then you slow down the pace at which your team will achieve your strategy. Here are three avoidable action plan mistakes:

Mistake #3:  “We can’t develop the action plan until we make the decision as to which path we will be taking to achieve this objective.”

What?  No action plan?  Not acceptable! The first part of the action plan should identify the key criteria that will be used to make the decision regarding path selection.  After the criteria have been developed, you will identify the steps necessary to collect the data to make the decision and finally, you will determine the steps needed to present the information for the team to select the appropriate path.  Waiting until the decision is made slows the process and often does not allow time for the identification of criteria and the gathering of the data.

Another approach I often recommend is to develop multiple action plans, one for each path so that the steps, timeline and resources can be identified for each path.  This option works well with make/buy decisions.  By outlining the steps for the “make,” you can benchmark what a “buy” decision saves you in terms of time-to-market, probability of success and overall resources.  It may be worthwhile to go the “buy” route even if the cost is greater, but the probability of success is higher, and the speed to market is faster.

Mistake #2: Action plans are not detailed

Recently a team had an objective to install a new ERP system.  The action plan submitted had less than 10 steps and was to be completed in 4 months.  What happened?  Yes, you guessed it, a major train wreck.  By not forcing the action plan steps to get down to a granular level, the true resource requirements and timing were not identified.  Action plan steps need to be clearly defined – each step should be small enough that resources can be adequately identified: who, how much time, and how much money.  To prevent “high level” action plans, first ask your team leader to work with their Action Plan Team to make the plan detailed enough to guide development of the individual steps.  After the Action Plan Team develops a first draft, let the action plan sit for a week.  Then have the team members update the plan with any additional thoughts that have occurred during the week.  Finally, have the whole Strategic Planning Team review each action plan during your Implementation meeting.  This allows the senior team to ask detailed questions and make suggestions for enhancement.  Just because you want the action plan to move forward is no reason to shut off the discussion around detail, timing and cost.  To “protect” a project and make it seem less complex than it truly is only causes failure and often derails other action plans, as resources need to be reallocated throughout the year in order to fix the problems that are occurring in a poorly developed action plan.

Mistake #1:  We have to do this…..

“We have to do this….” is often heard when it comes time to select the 8-10 action plans that we want to accomplish in the next 12-18 months.  If the group buckles under, your list may grow to 15-20 plans.  Just because you would like to do 15-20 doesn’t mean that you should.  Most teams can digest 8-10, but often pull this number back when they have fewer resources or they are working on an action plan that will take significant resources to move things forward.  If you try to move too many action plans forward, you may not make significant progress on any, and the team may become demoralized because of constant resource conflict and slow progress.  Selecting the few, rather than the many, is one of the most difficult parts of strategic planning – but teams that are able to do this are more successful than the ones that consistently try to do too much. If you complete your plans quicker than anticipated, you can always add more.  Remember that the benefits of most actions plans don’t occur until they are completed.

In summary, the keys to successful action plan development:

3. Action plans need to be developed even if there are two or more courses of action – don’t wait for the decision, make the decision-making process part of the action plan.

2. Action plans need to be granular, clear road maps with detailed steps and detailed resource requirements.

1. Selecting a few action plans is better than trying for more and accomplishing less.  Part of strategic planning is making tough decisions – if you punt, you will not be as successful as if you make the hard decisions upfront.

Action plan discipline is one of the keys to the success in achieving your strategic plan, but it is only one piece of the puzzle.  In order to be successful you must integrate your action plans into your monitoring process.   To learn more about successful execution please read:  Everyone Knows Execution is Important – So Why Do We Fail to Execute?

Denise Harrison is Executive Vice President and COO of the Center for Simplified Strategic Planning, Inc.  She can be reached at

© Copyright 2012 by Center for Simplified Strategic Planning, Inc., Ann Arbor, MI — Reprint permission granted with full attribution.


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