Targets are NOT plans: learn to separate the two

Every program should have targets. Knowing what you want to achieve is the first step in any successful program.

If you’re not sure, why bother?

It’s also crucial for business leaders to understand the difference between business targets and program plans. They are different.

While the two terms seem simple, they are worlds apart. It’s disturbing how often the line between them becomes blurred. They both come before execution, but they’re absolutely not swappable.

Confusion about what constitutes a target – and what represents a plan always ends in failure. Programs nosedive because of this muddle and cost companies millions of pounds.


Program targets are easy, program strategies are not

When it comes to creating a program strategy, the ‘what’ and ‘why’ are a walk in the park.

You know the impact you want to have and why it needs to happen. It’s easy to put into words. These are your goals, after all – the very reason you’re strategising in the first place.

But ‘How’, on one hand, and ‘When’ on the other, are a completely different story.

You have your targets defined clearly on paper, and you know why you want to hit them. But how do you go about getting there?

All too often there’s a sizeable gap between easy-to-set goals and the actual plan of action for a business critical program. The strategy often distorts and trivialises the original objective, failing to take into account just how much work is required in the months ahead.

Questions like – what is the scope of the program? How big and complex is it? How much time do we have? Who will be involved – which internal functions and external suppliers? What are the interdependencies? Do we have the skills to get the job done effectively? What are the risks?

These questions provide the answer but require in-depth analysis before any program deadline is convincing.


A call for transparency and coherence

With more than two-thirds of business-critical programs failing, there are plenty of executives asking themselves “what went wrong?”

While there is no single right answer, execution failures are mostly “designed-in” during the strategy development stage.

One big problem is the program execution lifecycle itself.

Targets are set by executives who only have eyes on the results. But strategies are put together by a small core execution team, supported by part-time people from various business areas who are being pulled in a hundred different directions by their functional bosses. And execution plans often presume a mix of people from everywhere on a part-time basis.

It seems plausible but schemes that sound perfect on paper aren’t possible to deliver in the long run.

After all, nothing is too difficult for someone who doesn’t actually have to do it. So promising (and expecting) the earth becomes “acceptable”.

The obvious solution is a little more honesty.


The vulnerable points

In a process so complex and disjointed, there are bound to be weak spots. The transition from strategy to execution is a time when programs are particularly vulnerable – one bad judgement call at this point can cause disaster later on, even if the plan seems watertight.

The linkage between strategy and execution is where people make mistakes. Some people are such great thinkers that they don’t have in their DNA how to get things done. They believe that if you just have the ideas you are doing an excellent job. They don’t have the psychology and they think execution is low value-added work. But to work as a leader you must achieve results. Ideas are not enough. (Ram Charan)

It’s crucial that executives think twice, and keep their minds clear of heroic assumptions and past decisions. They’re not always relevant in a different operating framework.

Go in with too much confidence and cracks can quickly emerge when resources are stretched, and people realise they’re in too deep.

Everyone needs to understand their roles explicitly from day one, and must be sure that those in the driving seat are ready to follow through on brave, but over-ambitious target talk in the execution phase.

Put simply, there’s too often a disparity between what businesses want to do (the target) and what they’re prepared to do (the plan), and that can’t be the case.

The sooner companies clearly separate and distinguish between targets and plans and bring them into line, the sooner startling program failure rates will begin to drop off.