Shifting Your Thinking from Plans to Outcomes


So where is your Strategic Plan?, I ask. And they all start to laugh.

Finally one person speaks up. "We don’t know where it is. We’ve never seen it." Another: "We know where ours is. It’s on the CEO’s credenza." And they start to laugh again.

Do you know what the plan says?, I probe. Dead silence. Has anyone ever told you what it says? Has it ever influenced any of your decisions or other plans? No. No. And no.

The answers are always the same. Is it any wonder nine out of ten strategic plans fail?
So what’s wrong? What do we need to do differently — to create a better process that guides companies and their leadership forward? Perhaps it’s time to re-think Strategic Planning.

Distilling Strategic Planning down to its most critical parts

What can you do as a leader to improve your Strategic Planning? Here are two potential first steps in that direction. First, if it isn’t working for you — forget the old ways of Strategic Planning. Second, focus instead on outcomes. Why does this work? Most companies are good at figuring out how to do things. The challenge is usually figuring out which are the best things to do — short and long term.

But there is another really big mistake that companies make right here: they only focus on the positive outcomes they want. They almost never think about the outcomes they want to avoid (the bad stuff). That omission opens the door to a lot of mistakes happening that can really hurt you. Think Apple Maps as one example.

Here is a simple tool to help you plan both sides of your outcomes. We've developed it and have used it for years in our Critical Situations work for firms of all sizes. It's easy, quick, and it always works for us. Here's how to do it.

Creating An Outcomes Map

Take a piece of paper or a whiteboard and draw a line down the center from top to bottom. At the top of the left half, write the word WANT. On the opposite side of the line, write DON’T WANT. That’s it. You’re ready to begin. Now here’s what to do with your Outcomes Map.

1. Choose one area to focus on, say Client Services Delivery or Increasing Top Line Revenues. Begin to list all the outcomes you want to happen or accomplish. Any order is fine.

2. Next move to the right side and begin to list what you DO NOT want to happen — what you want to avoid. This will help everyone understand what the risks and dangers might be in achieving the things you want. This step is very important — as it promotes a whole new level of understanding. There are always things to avoid — like mistakes, overruns, delays, bad press, upset clients, etc.

3. Once you have thoroughly listed items on both sides of your Outcomes Map, it’s time to prioritize. As a group discuss and decide which outcomes are critical — and which ones you really need to accomplish. This helps you identify priority areas and encourages an understanding of what’s most important. Do the same for what you won’t want. Then redraw your map in priority order. It doesn’t have to be perfect. You can refine it over time.

Now everyone can clearly see and understand both what you want to accomplish and what you don’t want to happen. Then repeat the process for other key areas of your business. Later your team can go to work on action plans based on the outcomes map.

Be very sure to discuss specifically how you can avoid or prevent the negative outcomes. Usually your teams will get it, but making it clear what must not be allowed to happen and being intentional about it at this stage seems to deepens everyone's understanding and provides greater accountability and ownership of the total outcome.

Outcomes Mapping has proven to be a simple but powerful tool that encourages discussion, strategic thinking, clarity, and buy-in — especially as your team gets good at it. I encourage you to give it a try. Good luck, and let me know how it works for you.

Carl Francis


This article first appeared in the January 2013 issue of the Voice, the newsletter of the Chester County Chamber of Business and Industry.

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