In my many years of strategic planning consulting, I’ve seen some clear patterns emerge where A/E/C firms get bogged down, and I’d like to share some of those experiences. My colleague, Cara Bobchek, and I are also presenting case studies on this topic at the ACEC national convention this month.

“Title Bloc.” Many firms can’t draw a line regarding who should participate in strategic planning, basing participation on the default choice of “all of the principals” or “the management committee” and, in the process, excluding bright up-and-comers while including senior people—some of whom may be excellent managers—who don’t have nearly enough vested interest in the long-term future of the firm. You should select your planning team from among current and future leaders who display strategic thinking, entrepreneurial energy and enthusiasm, and the courage to state hard truths.

Navel Gazers. Quite often, firms spend too much time looking internally, tweaking their own operations, squeezing nickels and dimes, and essentially “rearranging deck chairs,” while their clients’ world is buffeted by major forces. You should lift your collective heads and keep your clients’ highest mission—their definition of their success—firmly in mind. Conduct an annual client survey in which you ask probing questions about trends in their world. Task a “trendspotting” team with monitoring market conditions and trends. Consider adding scenario planning as an element in your own strategic planning.

Destination Unknown. The “vision thing” can seem soft and fluffy to many managers. Yet a plan with no “destination” guarantees that decisions will be made on the fly—often inconsistently over time—in the absence of any long-term context. You should always make sure that the lead-off to your strategic plan is a five-year (or longer) vision that paints a vivid picture of what your firm aspires to be. This will get people excited about the future, set the bar, and drive a stake in the ground toward which everyone can strive.

The Nonperformer. Many firms seem to have one (or more) senior principals whose own performance—and often their group’s—drags down the firm. Because they’re universally nice people and even longtime business friends, firm leaders frequently have trouble confronting these individuals—often the elephant in the room during strategic planning. You should never allow underperformers, especially at senior levels, to sidestep accountability. The more senior, the more their attitude will affect and infect those around them, leaving others confused and even resentful. As difficult as it is, reassign, demote, or even remove these people who are an anchor on you, your partners, your future leaders, and your firm.

No Action. Planning retreats almost always end on a high note, with everyone looking forward to the future. But too many firms create too many action items, then assign them to too few people who will never be able to complete them. You should pick and choose your action items carefully, prioritize them rigorously, and meet with your planning team regularly to ensure that everything is being completed according to schedule. Communicate that for senior managers, implementing the strategic plan really is part of their “day job.”