Managing the Business From a Master Plan

Although corporations within the U.S. spend approximately $300 billion per year on training, permanent change will occur only when an organization’s infrastructure elicits, reinforces, and even demands desired leadership behaviors. Research shows that only about 10-20% of the knowledge gained from training actually transfers to the job. The challenge and opportunity is to translate knowledge and skills into practices that actually improve organizational performance.

This article is part of a series about how to build good leadership practices into the infrastructure of your organization.  In my last two newsletters, I’ve discussed the following guidelines for instilling good leadership in your organization:

  1. Focus all your leaders on a shared definition (standard) or paradigm of good leadership behavior
  2. Set the example at the top
  3. Create a forum for feedback between leaders and their employees

Another guideline to ensure both the development and effectiveness of leaders is to manage the business from a master plan. Although this seems to be a simple notion, managers and supervisors in most organizations readily admit they are in a fire-fighting mode, reacting to the demands of the moment rather than acting from a predetermined agenda of what they want to accomplish.

A lack of a master plan results in a vicious circle from which escape is very difficult.  The less people plan, the more an atmosphere of chaos and urgency reign. And the more urgency and chaos people experience, the more difficult they perceive it to be to take time to plan. The consequence is they are forever attacking symptoms while leaving intact the root causes of organizational problems. Although many factors contribute to a climate of chaos, perhaps the most important is a lack of planning and perception that “we just don’t have the time.”

A secondary consequence of this vicious circle is that it sets leaders up to be overly involved in day-to-day affairs and to micromanage the business. This practice demoralizes employees and causing them to conclude that they are neither trusted nor able to  make a difference in the organization. Nothing happens without the involvement of the manager or supervisor.

By managing from a plan, leaders pay attention to the “big-picture” and what matters most. They work (to borrow a phrase from Edwards Demming) “on systems not in systems” and thereby gradually eliminate the root causes of problems. Doing this requires a culture which values planning and organizing skills. Below are the steps in creating such  a plan.

Step #1: Identify Critical Success Factors

Critical success factors (CSFs) are a set of concise statements, usually bullet points, that represent what the organization must accomplish in order to achieve its mission. The list should include no more than 8 items, each expressing a single theme. CSFs cannot be thought of as actions, “how-tos”, nor as directly manageable. Together, they represent the conditions, which if achieved, will guarantee that the organization will accomplish its mission and achieve maximum success.

Step #2: Identify Major Action-Initiatives

The action-initiatives are the specific tasks that must be carried out in order to achieve the critical success factors. They are actions that define the “how to” of achieving the organization’s mission and are directly manageable and measurable. Each action-initiative must have a significant and direct impact upon at least one of the critical success factors. They are the means by which the organization can achieve the critical success factors.

The senior management team accomplishes this task by considering each CSF one at a time and coming up with a list of major action-initiatives that will result in the accomplishment of that CSF. Once they have done that for each critical success factor, they search for common patterns or themes or opportunities to combine certain initiatives to avoid redundancies of effort. Each action-initiative, from the final list, should be focused and independent.

Step #3:  Sequence the Action-Initiatives

It is not possible to implement all initiatives at the same time. A common management error is trying to do everything at once and, consequently, not doing anything well. It is necessary to achieve excellence and closure on fewer projects rather than attempting to do everything at once. Finding that balance in a competitive and demanding environment is not easy. The management team will need to decide which initiatives they need to begin immediately and which should be delayed to a later time. The management team will revisit the initiatives on a regular basis and  add new initiatives as others come to fruition.

Step #4: Complete an Simple Action Matrix

Across the top are critical success factors and down the left side are the action-initiatives. The action-initiatives should be entered on the chart in the order in which each will be initiated. In addition to listing the initiatives, the chart should be completed by identifying the CSFs impacted by each initiative by placing a check mark in the corresponding box. The number of CSFs impacted is then listed in a column on the right hand side of the page. Which initiative has the greatest impact upon the largest number of critical success factors? Which has the second greatest impact, and so on. Although such a forced-choice may seem difficult, it forces the management team to think carefully about each initiative and achieve a greater understanding of the value and implications of each. The final column lists the name of the “champion” who assumes major accountability for the action initiative.

Step #5: Establish Accountability

Once the priority and sequencing of initiatives has been determined, it is necessary to establish accountability by assigning a “champion” to each.  The champion is a member of the management team who assumes primary responsibility for the accomplishment of that particular initiative. Although the entire team shares responsibility and will participate to some degree in its success, this person is charged with “ownership.” Although other people from throughout the organization will participate in project teams that work on some of the initiatives,  the final accountability must come back to the senior leadership team.

Step #6: Clarify Project Parameters

Although primary accountability for each action initiative resides with one member of the leadership team, all team members continue to share responsibility for its success. One way in which they continue to play a role in the overall success of an initiative is by specifying the boundary conditions or parameters that will guide the endeavor. Many of the initiatives will be “handed-off” to a project team, including the champion. The project team is given a definition of their purpose, time-frame, resources, and expected outcomes to guide them in their work.

Step #7: Commissioning Project Teams

The champion and perhaps a few other members of the leadership team meet with the individuals participating on the project team to orient them to the purpose, parameters and scope of the initiative. They review with them the purpose, desired outcomes, resources, constraints, etc. of the project and how this project fits with the overall strategy and direction of the business as a whole. The project team, working within the parameters established by the senior leadership team, is responsible for further planning and implementation of the project. They report back to the senior leadership team regularly during the life of the project and when they complete their work.


The method takes some time to complete but brings good discipline to the business. The plan helps define the core work of the senior management team and helps ensure that leaders, at all levels, are coordinating their work and spending time on value-added activities.

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