Author – Nyron Drepaul
Planning can go awry for many reasons, but one of the most common is a poorly designed or executed action plan. This tool—the core output of strategic planning—sometimes offers only vague suggestions or lofty goals without clear steps to achieve them. Initiatives may also be unrealistic and developed without team consultation or buy-in.
“The action plan is at the heart of a strategic plan,” says Nyron Drepaul, a Senior Business Advisor with BDC’s Advisory Services who advises companies on strategic planning.
“It should offer specific tactical actions that deliver on the company’s strategic objectives. Some strategic plans only offer very high-level recommendations without concrete steps. The entrepreneur needs to know exactly what to do next, once the plan is completed.”
No plan survives first contact with reality. The action plan has to be continually updated. Don’t keep working on a plan that is surpassed by events.
1. Involve your team early on an action plan
Your team’s participation will make or break the action plan. They should be involved from the beginning as you develop the action plan and other elements of the strategic plan.
“The owner can’t do it alone,” Drepaul says. “Delegation and accountability are key. Some owners try to create a strategic plan by themselves their teams aren’t involved. That’s the old-fashioned way, which has a high risk of failure, especially if the owner becomes busy with something else. A good leader achieves results through teamwork.”
Managers involved in strategic planning should brainstorm with their teams about projects and specific steps to include in the action plan and how to implement them. The idea is to take many great ideas, filter them to select the important ones, make a shortlist to study in detail, and then focus on a few key actions with the greatest potential of helping the company attain its strategic goals and desired future state.
“The intention is not to generate an exhaustive list of everything to do,” Drepaul says. “The idea is to prioritize actions to move from the current state to the desired future state and close the gaps between the two.”
Involving your team helps ensure the best ideas are considered and employees are on board for implementation. “People on the front lines sometimes have the best ideas for planning and implementation. You’ll get the best team buy-in if as many key employees are involved as possible,” Drepaul says.
2. List concrete details for each action plan
The action plan is typically presented as a one-page spreadsheet that lists initiatives by function. Actions can be simple one-off projects (e.g., hiring a new person), repeatable actions (e.g., initiating monthly reviews of actual versus estimated costs) or a larger project (e.g., converting the website to an e-commerce site).
For each action, the spreadsheet lists a key performance indicator, names of those responsible for or involved in the initiative and a timeline for execution. The spreadsheet may also assign a priority for the initiative (low, medium, or high).
More detailed descriptions of the actions usually appear elsewhere in the strategic plan. The action plan is an easy-read summary of these initiatives, which your team can use as a quick reference, as well as to track progress.
3. Include a timeline for an action plan
Action plans generally cover 12 months. For each initiative, the spreadsheet includes a column for each month to list what needs to be done throughout the year. Additional columns are included for each quarter of the remaining years of the strategic plan (strategic plans generally cover two to three years in total).
4. Designate resources for an action plan
Many action plans aren’t successful because they don’t allocate appropriate human and financial resources to completing initiatives. Make sure to dedicate enough time, support, training, and budgets.
The action plan should be clear on employee responsibilities for each initiative. This can take the form of a RASCI matrix:
- Responsible—who acts.
- Accountable—who oversees the action, typically the head of a team (“R” and “A” can be the same person, especially in a smaller company).
- Support—who provides support?
- Consulted—who should be consulted during execution? For example, the CFO may need to give financial information.
- Informed—who should be informed about progress or decisions, such as a senior person or the head of an affected department.
5. Establish a follow-up and measurement process for the plan
The action plan should specify measures to track implementation. These can be milestones (such as the completion of a task) or quantifiable measures (such as revenue, margin, or market share).
Also, decide how you will follow up on the action plan to ensure steps are carried out. This can include internal reporting and regular meetings to discuss progress. Meetings are often held monthly, with a deeper review each quarter. Meetings help you recognize and reward employees for successes, identify where you’ve fallen behind, and study why so you can take corrective action.
6. Communicate the action plan
Make sure all employees are aware of the action plan and their role in implementing it. Explain its benefits to the employees and organization.
“It’s important for your team to know that the action plan is the tactical component of your overall business strategy, which is aimed at improving the performance of the company,” Drepaul says.
“They need to hear that from management and see the links. People may resist change, but they have to be told that change is inevitable and needed for the business to survive and thrive. They need to be reassured that the plan won’t bring complete disruption and that it will happen one step at a time. You need to address people’s concerns and make them feel at ease with the changes.”
7. Keep the action plan alive
An action plan isn’t written in stone. It should be agile, flexible, and responsive to issues that arise in implementation and changes in the external and internal landscapes. You may need to revise actions, priorities, or even your larger objectives. Regularly ask for feedback from your team.
“No plan survives its first contact with reality,” Drepaul says. “The action plan has to be continually updated. Don’t keep working on a plan that’s surpassed by events.”
As the year draws to an end, start talking with your team about developing a new action plan for the next 12 months, drawing on lessons you’ve learned.
“Discussing the action plan regularly is a good way to keep your strategic plan alive and at the forefront of everyone’s mind and attention,” Drepaul says. “Talk about it wherever you can. Hold each team member accountable for the actions they had to perform. You want the plan to become a part of everyone’s day-to-day work and not be construed as a special project to work on when you have extra time.”