7 Reasons Why Strategic Plans Fail (and how you can avoid them)

This is part of a blog series with practical tips on how to be more productive, cultivate creativity and growth within your company, and nurture a vibrant culture among your teams.

There’s an old saying that if you fail to plan you plan to fail. This certainly holds true in the project management world, in our daily business endeavors, and in our personal lives.

Consider setting out on a weekend drive to the countryside without first planning your trip: deciding on your ultimate destination, finding a map, checking weather and road conditions, estimating the amount of time it’s going to take to get there and how many stops you’ll likely need or want to take along the way, for instance. Of course, unexpected events such as delays due to road work or other reasons can, and most likely will, require you to deviate from any anticipated plan.

To get to your destination, you’ll need to know what’s in and what’s out for your drive (scope), have some kind of idea of how you’re going to get there (a road map), who is joining you for the trip, who is driving, and most importantly, who’s bringing the snacks (resources), and you’ll need an estimation of time and cost prior to leaving the house. It usually helps if you have some ideas about what will happen if roadblocks or other delays impede your course (contingency plan). 

Why plans fail

The same analogy can be applied to strategic initiatives and project plans. With so many factors, it can certainly be difficult to estimate plans accurately. However, there are plans and there are plans. There are plenty of reasons why bona fide project plans can and do fail. The good news is that these can be addressed preemptively with project management tools that help you reduce the likelihood of a nuclear meltdown.

Here are some reasons why strategic initiatives and plans fail.

Focus and pick ideas carefully - Steve Jobs

1. Unrealistic goals or lack of focus and resources

Strategic plans must be focused and include a manageable, clearly defined number of goals, objectives, and programs. Adequate resources to accomplish those goals and objectives outlined in the plan must be adequately allocated.

According to a study, effective communication methodologies enable project teams and organizations to increase quality, scope, and business benefits success. When planning a project, the scope must be comprehensive, detailed, and crystal clear to team members, stakeholders, and, preferably, to the entire organization to lay the foundation for its success. Implementing a holistic planning process, building a realistic business direction for the future, and employing effective communication channels among teams greatly improves the chances for successful implementation of your overall business strategy.

Complexity is why strategic initiatives fail

2. Plans are overly complex

We all know someone who is a plan over-engineering extraordinaire. They write pages and pages of text, mix in complex, overly detailed charts and diagrams, and create a schedule with so many contingencies and restrictions that it becomes virtually impossible to follow — let alone implement — by the project team.

If strategic initiatives aren’t capable of being effectively communicated because of their complexity, then team members cannot be expected to carry them out as intended. 

3. Financial estimates are significantly inaccurate

Cost estimating: art or science? All too often, projects proceed with little more than a general estimation of what sorts of resources are needed (this holds true for estimating required people-power, too). The further along a project is allowed to proceed without adequate financial controls and checks in place, the higher the overall costs involved. This can include more than just bottom line financial costs, but can also extend to customer satisfaction and your perceived reliability as a business and team.

Computer screen with question mark

4. Plans are based on insufficient data

Often — and particularly in the software development realm where Agile processes have been implemented — relevant project data is scarce at the initial planning stages. Without a proper tool in place to help teams flexibly modify plans as a project evolves and more information becomes available, this often encourages plans that are too high-level or overly broad (and vague).

If plans are based on wrong assumptions due to insufficient — or misunderstood — data, they drive the project towards disaster from the outset, particularly if there is no Plan B in place and no means with which to easily modify the plan before the project slides out of control.

5. Inflexible/undefined team roles and responsibilities

Often times, project managers and team members are considered primarily delivery (wo)men. They’re handed a project plan, and informed that their performance will be measured based on how well the project delivers against that designated plan. If they question the assumptions, estimates, or the general approach set forth in the plan, they’re instructed to “just get on with it,” as expectations have already been set. Guess who will likely be blamed if plans fails?

While it’s imperative that everyone involved in a project understands from the outset what their work is, how it fits into the project as a whole, and to whom they will be reporting, it’s also important that there be mechanisms by which their feedback is factored into the planning and project processes, particularly as changes in project circumstances require.

6. Staffing requirements are not fully understood

Resource planning is a crucial part of the project planning process, and, if not carefully implemented, incorrect assumptions and estimates made regarding human resource requirements, including the number, role, skill, and timing perspectives can impact project timeframe and overall bottom line costs. After all, plans depend on the resources who deliver them. Data and information is crucial both at the planning stages, and throughout the project process, to monitor availability and project status, and to make any necessary course corrections.

7. Project scope inflexible to changes

Experience tells us that simply because a plan has been implemented and everyone has agreed to it doesn’t mean that all will go as expected. It’s never a good thing when the scope of a project changes and it can usually be avoided through proper planning. But being adaptable and having a “Plan B” in case it does happen along the way is imperative to help attain the overall project goal.

How can you keep your plans from failing?

Considering there are so many reasons why plans can fail, one might wonder why ever plan at all. For one, mapping out a plan before embarking onto its implementation has plenty of benefits. It enables better organization. It allows for a better understanding of objectives and their alignment with broader organizational goals, but it also helps identify and take into account any impediments that exist in reaching those objectives.

Planning helps reduce, and even eliminate, uncertainty, improve efficiency of operations, and find smarter ways to complete project tasks and deliverables. Studies have shown that organizations that have adopted project portfolio management (PPM) solutions, including effective project management tools to help manage projects and the portfolio, and also conduct ongoing reviews of these projects see an increased likelihood of portfolios that meet schedules, scope, quality, budget, time, and business benefits.

Well-defined project planning also provides a basis for monitoring and controlling work on the project, which is crucial to staying on top of schedules, milestones, costs, risks, and issues.

Employing effective software measurement tools therefore becomes essential, not only for early forecasting and estimates, but for measuring compliance and identifying trends and deviations along the way.

Resource planning guide






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