We’ve all heard (or said) this at some point in our careers… probably many times. A project, a program, or an entire business has gone off the rails. While this happens frequently due to a total lack of planning, that wasn’t the case here. Instead, you and your team put time and effort into formulating a plan to achieve your goal. But, somehow, things broke down during execution. But why? Perhaps your plans, however complete, were not fully aligned.
Back in the age of the dinosaurs (the 1990s), planning was a key part of the culture of our company. We had project plans, quarterly tactical plans, annual growth plans, and five year strategic plans (gasp!). No doubt, a discipline of planning improved our project success rate and contributed to 10+ years of rapid growth (yes, we measured these things). Yet some of our business ventures struggled for years to gain market traction and organizational mindshare. And it wasn’t due to lack of planning.
Like many entrepreneurial companies, we were strongly biased toward trying new things, expanding to new markets, and adding more value for our customers. During the first several years of the business, those of us on the supply side had to work very hard to grow our portfolio fast enough to meet the demands of our customers and our salesforce. We placed relatively small bets on many new offerings, and let the market decide which bets warranted further investment. We practiced many Lean Startup principles before it was “a thing.”
This worked well, until we scaled to the point that many teams were competing for the scarce resources of money, management focus, and salesforce mindshare. Our breadth of offerings was so expansive, it was difficult to describe what business we were in. Members of some teams had little understanding of what the other teams did, what their value propositions were, and how everything fit into the overall value proposition of the business. Blessed with many lines of business that seemed promising, management continued to invest in all of them… but couldn’t afford to invest fully in any of them. Salespeople couldn’t master everything we did, so each salesperson picked the handful of offerings with which they were most comfortable or successful, and focused on those. Team leaders, starved for resources and mindshare, lost motivation and passion for the business. This trickled down to their team members.
Every one of these ventures had a plan. But, at some point, we stopped applying the necessary tests for whether our plans were fully aligned:
- Does the venture, and the plan, align with the stated Purpose of the organization as a whole? This alignment should be crystal clear.
- Does the venture, and the plan, align with the Passion of the stakeholders? It must, if it’s going to earn their mindshare.
- Does the Value Proposition of the Product (or service) align with the overall Value Proposition of the business? If not, good luck explaining it to your salespeople (and customers).
- Does the plan align with the agreed-upon Priorities of the organization? If not, why are we talking about this at all?
- Does the plan require that we deviate from the established Practices (i.e. culture) of our organization? If so, how are we going to accomplish that? Really?
- Have we identified what will be required of all stakeholders, to ensure success of the plan? And can we realistically capture enough mindshare to make this happen?
- Are we able to fully resource the plan? If not, we’re probably trying to do too many things at once.
- If this is an experiment, have we clearly defined the conditions through which we’ll either add more resources, or terminate the project/venture? Zombie businesses eat your team members’ brains.
Asking and answering these questions can be tough, because often the answers will not be favorable. In my experience, if organizations applied this test consistently to their projects and new ventures, far fewer things would be started. But the right ventures and projects would be prioritized, and would benefit from the focus and resources necessary for success.