May 2019

Dear Clients and Friends,

Next week, I will be making a presentation at the ACEC Annual Convention entitled “Getting It Done! Keys to Implementing Your Firm’s Strategic Plan.” If you can make it there, great! I look forward to seeing you. For the rest of you, here’s a summary of my key points:

In a nutshell, firms often tend to over-plan and under-implement. As you may imagine—or may have experienced yourself—there are reasons for this. In my presentation, I’ve identified nine of them, categorized into three areas:

  • Problems with the Plan
  • Problems with the Process
  • Problems with the People.

Problems with the Plan

  • The “too big” plan. A plan’s volume is inversely proportional to your firm’s ability to implement it. The best plans are concise—no more than ten pages. Two factors can make your plan too big: too many ideas, and too much time between plans. Before including any initiative in the plan, ask yourself “what’s the big idea?” or “what is the one essential thing we need to accomplish?” Be discerning. Address only a few high impact topics. Also, plan more frequently. Letting too much time lapse between planning activities will result in too many pent-up issues to address. Update a plan annually, selectively addressing only those “move the needle” initiatives.
  • Too much fluff. I’m a big believer in a plan having a long-term future vision to guide the direction of the firm, but I sometimes see plans that are disproportionately bulked up with mission statements, purpose statements, and lengthy descriptions of core values, at the expense of nuts and bolts action items. The result is a plan with very little to actually implement. Tom Peters, in his seminal book, In Search of Excellence, found that the top-ranked attribute of successful companies was “a bias for action.” To move your firm ahead, make sure your strategic plan is action-oriented.
  • The “never finished” plan. Some firms want their plan to be “perfect.” They prolong the planning process to make the plan better and better with the result that the plan is never finished. General George Patton said, “A good plan executed today is better than a perfect plan executed at some indefinite point in the future.” I like to say, “don’t let the great be the enemy of the good.” Finish the plan, perfect or not, and begin to implement it so that you can accomplish positive change for your firm.
  • No implementation steps in the plan. Every strategic plan should conclude with simple steps describing exactly how the firm will implement it—a road map for implementation. If the plan doesn’t address its own implementation, the odds are slim that it will get done.

Problems with the Process

  • Too busy. This is the most common complaint from firms that get mired in day-to-day firm management activities. Consequently, not enough time, attention, or resources are applied to working on important strategic items. Some firms even become their own worst enemies when they apply high utilization targets for the very managers who also have responsibility for action items in the plan.
  • Loss of momentum. Many firms start strong, but lose steam. It’s important to keep the planning team together by meeting monthly to report on progress, build constructive peer pressure, and sustain momentum. Remember that almost every action item in the plan is a means to an end, not an end to itself. Be sure to ask “what’s next?” whenever you are tempted to simply check off an action item as “done.”
  • Poor communication with staff. Regularly sharing strategic plan information and progress with your employees builds enthusiasm for getting things done. With a short email, let the staff know right away what comes out of the planning workshop. Later, follow up with a more detailed presentation of the plan, and maintain ongoing communications over time to keep everyone in the loop regarding progress being made.

Problems with the People

  • Leadership. This can take the form of an unenthusiastic or hands-off leader. In any firm, it’s the CEO’s primary job to develop and implement the firm’s strategic plan. As such, the top person in the firm must be a promoter of—and a cheerleader for—the planning process and the plan itself, and should leverage his or her influence and enthusiasm to motivate people, while also holding them accountable for getting their action items done. Also, the CEO can’t lean back and say (or think) “it’s their plan,” letting others take charge. Strong, enthusiastic, and effective leadership from the top is key to successfully implementing any strategic plan.
  • Empowerment and accountability. Every strategic plan has to include action items with specific tasks to be accomplished, an individual responsible for each task, and a deadline. Managers with action items must be empowered to use their time and marshal the resources to get the job done, and must be held accountable for doing so, much the same way a project manager in your firm is responsible for successfully managing and completing a project.

When you consider these nine common implementation challenges that firms face, think of your own firm.

  • What approach has contributed the most to implementing your strategic plan?
  • What has been your firm’s greatest stumbling block?
  • What can you do differently to improve your firm’s successful strategic plan implementation?

As you know, I’m a strong proponent of strategic planning and strategic plans. After the considerable work that goes into developing a good plan, nobody wants to stumble when trying to implement it. If you have thoughts about this important topic, we’d love to hear from you at

Ray Kogan