One of the things I do in my work is to help people write strategic plans. The first thing I do is read their existing plan. So far, by my standards, about 99% of them have been too long, too complicated and have too many goals. The result? The plans are usually ignored as a driver for day-to-day decision making. Often the plans exist within the context of an institutional planning framework that looks really good at first glance. The inevitable diagram is impressive, the different levels of plans (at least three, usually five) appear linked and connected. There is usually some sort of box or shape that refers to inputs - the environment. There's no box for strategic thinking, but the need for that box on the planning diagram is a topic for another post. After I've read the plan, I talk to people in faculties and departments who have to implement the strategies, and ask them to think of words to describe their planning processes. I usually get phrases like 'silo planning', 'template driven planning' and 'top down'.

One institution where I worked had one strategic plan and five enabling plans. Those six documents generated over 700 actions to do and monitor in one year. Another institution where I worked had one strategic plan and eight supporting plans, with about the same number of actions. In both institutions, we moved to merge the supporting plans into a single plan with key goals that drove planning in the rest of the organisation, but we still had too many goals.  We lost focus on the end game - where we wanted to be in 20 years time - by having to spend our time implementing goals we had set, but which were probably more operational than strategic.

What happens between the undoubtedly good intentions behind the great looking planning diagrams and the implementation on the ground? One thing could be that we approach planning with a compliance mindset rather than an opportunity mindset. Another could be that we unintentionally - or intentionally - use planning to maintain the status-quo, by assuming the future will be the same as today, and not challenging those assumptions about how we will need to operate in that future. But, one of the biggest problems is that we set ourselves too many goals.

I've just read Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting by Ordonex, Schweitezer, Galinsky and Bazerman (Working Paper 09-083, 2009, Harvard Business School), who suggest we need a warning label for goals that reads:

Goals may cause systematic problems in organizations due to narrowed focus, unethical behaviour, increased risk taking, decreased cooperation, and decreased intrinsic motivation. Use care when applying goals in your organization.

Goals go wild when:

  • they are too specific, resulting in people focusing on one aspect of a task and neglecting or ignoring other important features; 
  • they are too narrow, which blinds people to important issues that appear unrelated to their goals;
  • there are too many goals, which usually results in people picking one to focus on;
  • they use a short term time horizon focusing on immediate performance that harms the organisation in the long run - here they make the comment that "The time horizon is related to the notion that goals can lead people to perceive their goals as ceilings rather than floors for performance" (page 8), and use an example of why it's so hard to find a cab in New York on a rainy afternoon; and
  • they are too challenging (the stretch goal), where goals are so challenging that people give up and don't try.

How to set goals that matter?  The Harvard folks provide 10 questions to ask to guide goal setting in their article.  I would suggest the following steps.

(i) Before you set the goals, spend some time thinking about the broad and long term context of your goals - ask yourself what will the environment in which you will be operating look like in 10 years time?  What will success look like then? What will you need to do today to be successful in the future? Think broadly and deeply about your vision (what you want to be/look like in 10-20 years time), and your mission (what you do today). As twee as it might sound, you need people to be able to recite your mission, so make it short. The best mission I ever read was along the lines of "We aim to transform lives through the power of education". It had a few more words around it, but people in that organisation knew what their business was.

(ii) Ask what three things you could do and/or change that will really help you achieve your vision (make it five if you need to, but no more).  These become your strategic goals. You will need to provide some explanation about the intent of the goals to help people do the next step.  Combine your vision, mission and goals and write them up in a one page strategic statement.

(iii) Trust your people across the organisation to interpret and respond to these goals in ways that make sense to their micro-context within your organisation. Ask them to define action they will take to help achieve the organisational goals. You can use Key Performance Indicators at this level, but make sure they really measure achievement of the goal. and aren't just data for data's sake.

(iv) Track progress towards achieving your goals by asking people to write up reports on what they have achieved and how it contributes to the organisational goals.  These reports replace the data driven reporting that seems to occupy us for far too much time today. I'm not suggesting here that you don't use data, but don't assume data tells the whole story about progress, and don't focus on it at the expense of other information. This beyond data approach requires a different mindset to be applied, and it requires people who can connect, interpret and synthesise seemingly disparate information in these reports to provide an overview of institutional progress.  This ability to syntheise information in this way will be a critical future capability in organisations.

This sort of approach moves away from what I call the vertical alignment model where every unit in an organisation has a strategic plan that, theoretically, supports and links directly to the organisation's strategic plan.  What happens in reality, however, is that each unit focuses on 'their' plan and not the organisational goals, and creates their own vision and mission, and sets up their own, usually operational, goals that may or may not relate to organisational goals. Voila!  Silo based planning.

This sort of approach will also free up time to spend thinking strategically about what needs to be done to achieve the vision, rather than write a glossy plan. It will let us use our collective energy to focus on the three things that will really make a difference to the future of our organisations.