How to Assess the Half-Life of Your Strategic Plan

Strategic Planning

How to Assess the Half-Life of Your Strategic Plan

FEATURING GUEST CONTRIBUTOR: Gary Cohen, Managing Partner, CO2 Partners, LLC

CO2 Partners

A dear friend of mine came over a few months ago for a glass of wine and asked me, “What’s the half-life of a strategic plan?” She’d just completed one with her team. Everyone voted to implement it immediately, and yet one executive began to stray from it within a couple of days!

“Half-life” brought me back to physics class and studying the periodic table. My recollection was that half-life had something to do with how many years it takes for a radioactive element to become inert. That’s true, I learned (again), but half-life is also more generally “the time required for a quantity to fall to half its value as measured at the beginning of the time period.”

Why is it that strategic plans start to lose their value so quickly? And what can be done about it? How can leaders boost the half-life of their strategic plans?

The answers to these questions lie here:

1. Organizational Habits

When organizations or departments first begin to design, build, and implement a strategic plan, they often struggle with moving from concept to execution. If they’re confused about roles, rules, or accountability, they’ll simply return to the routes and processes they’ve used in the past. Backsliding can start as early as the planning process, so it’s no wonder my friend witnessed it so soon.

Having an outside facilitator helps…a lot. A skilled facilitator can guide you through the process and ensure that everyone stays between the rails. A common mistake is to hire such a facilitator and then part ways immediately after the planning is finished. Unless the team is extremely disciplined, backsliding is bound to happen. Bad habits are tough to get rid of if there isn’t someone (an objective authority) routinely monitoring progress for the first year or two.

Half Life of a Strategic Plan #1

Over coffee recently, another friend shared with me how her company’s strategic plan lasted only a month. The organization did not have the facilitator follow the process through after the plan was completed, largely due to cost concerns. Because this was their first time implementing a strategic plan, they would have been better off not even beginning. It is not enough to have the playbook without knowing how to execute the plays. One of the important plays—one that skilled facilitators know and employ—is to communicate the plan at all levels of the organization. The plan must not just be issued, it must be heard and accepted by all stakeholders. Breaking old habits can take time and persistence.

2. Leadership Styles

The Just Ask Leadership Assessment identifies and explains four leadership styles:

  1. Innovator
  2. Director
  3. Judge
  4. Professor
Half Life of a Strategic Plan #2

Innovators are action-oriented and open to new and different perspectives; they’re great with brainstorming, but not so much with execution. These visionaries, who often run entrepreneurial companies, have the most trouble sticking to a plan—even if it was their idea to have a plan in the first place. They feel like all their great ideas are going to be missed out on if the plan takes precedence. What they do not see is the level of chaos that their freelancing creates for their coworkers—especially in larger organizations.

Professors, like Innovators, struggle with planning. Directors and judges, who excel at evaluation and execution, are the leadership styles that work best in this area.

3. Quality of the Planning Process

The quality of the planning process can dramatically affect the half-life of your strategic plan. Here again, the value of an outside facilitator becomes clear.

1)   The best strategic plan is not steered by any one person. If you are a leader, you have hierarchical power and that will have an undue influence on your team, no matter how open you think you are to others’ ideas. An outside facilitator can close you down when they believe you are demonstrating too much influence on the group.

2)   A strategic plan needs to be strategic. Unless you spend your day thinking, writing, and speaking about strategic planning, you may wind up with a plan, but not a strategic one. Each aspect of the plan must fit together as a system–not some disjointed planning concepts.

Half Life of a Strategic Plan #3

3)   The planning process should involve all or many of the stakeholders…and do so without abusing their time or effort. Group Mind ExpressTurning Technologies, and other technologies allow you to take advantage of the wisdom of the crowd, increase the level of engagement, silence the noisy minority, and reduce the need to sell the plan after it is completed. Because everyone was involved, they understand what trade-offs were considered and how the choices were made. The explanation was the process.

4. Trade-offs & Resources

A quality plan will provide trade-offs–what you are doing and, as importantly, what you are not doing. It will not leave issues ambiguous. A good strategic plan takes into account that resources are limited and that allocation of those resources is what drives the strategy. When team members go off plan, they are diverting resources that are needed elsewhere. On the other hand, when they adhere to the plan, the organization achieves a competitive advantage in the marketplace. Everyone knows what resources are available and to what end. This knowledge helps everyone understand and respond to the threat of new entries, bargaining power of buyers, bargaining power of suppliers, threat of substitution, and competitive rivalry.

Half Life of a Strategic Plan #4

What’s the half-life of your organization’s strategic plan?


About the Guest Contributor
Gary CohenGary Cohen (CO2 Partners, LLC)
Managing Partner

Gary is famous for asking; he wrote the book on it. He probes his clients with the only kind of questions that can produce change: unexpected ones. From the client’s answers, this dedicated Minneapolis leadership coach offers not just insights but alternative courses of action.

“There always are several good roads to Rome,” he says. “The key is to identify the one that best fits both your head and heart.” And he focuses on Rome–and not the possible curves in the road–for a simple reason: most obstacles are artificial, and the rest are in our heads. “Clear your head,” he has said, “and the obstacles disappear.” This may explain why Gary’s clients call him “eccentric in exactly the right way.” He knows that unusual success comes from unusual approaches, and–as Gary often has said, “I never have met a client who wanted to be ordinary.”

CEO experience: Managing Partner and Co-founder of CO2 Partners, LLC in 2004 an Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Firm. Founded ACI in 1989 with $4,000 and two employees, then grew 48 percent compounded annually for 12 years to over 2,200 employees and went public on the NASDAQ; Venture Magazine’s Top 10 Best Performing Businesses; and Business Journal’s 25 Fastest Growing Small Public Companies and Entrepreneur of the Year finalist.

Board memberships: All Kinds of Minds, Harvard Alumni Club of Minnesota, IC Systems, Inc., Richfield Bank, ACI, Telecentrics,, Outward Bound National Advisory, HBS Alumni Club of Minnesota (Past President), Minnesota Zoo Foundation among others.

Author: Just Ask Leadership: Why Great Managers Always Ask the Right Questions (McGraw Hill 2009); articles for Business Week, Leader to Leader, and Forbes.
Clients: Unilever, Intel, Genentech, MetLife, Thermo-Fisher, and 100 -plus entrepreneur-led businesses.

Education: University of Minnesota (B.A); Harvard Business School; Covey Leadership Center; Disney Leadership Institute; and Aspen Institute Crown Fellow. Want to know more about Gary’s approach to leadership and life? Read his blog, Elements of Leadership.