The reason most companies don't follow their carefully formulated strategic plan is that it has nothing to do with real work. The goals and objectives sound good in the vacuum of the conference room at the annual offsite, but as soon as everyone is back at their desk, reality takes over. There are two reasons for this:

First, you never have a convenient blank slate to launch your new plan from. When you say "go," your team is still dealing with a full plate of old and ongoing work. Rarely can any leader fully clear the plate and start fresh. So, your team is always trying to integrate new stuff with a heaping list of more pressing, ongoing issues.

Second, none of us work in isolation. It'd be great if you could issue your strategic plans to our target customers and suppliers and get them to behave accordingly. Instead, they continue to do their thing and you have to either respond to or ignore them.

So, why even make this strategic plan? I still believe strategic planning is valuable, but not because you end with a plan. Strategic planning is an excellent team-building exercise and it generates something much more valuable--if you can read between the lines. As you set your future direction, you're making choices. Why you make those choices is critically important information, and not just for the annual exercise.

Instead, the reasons you make those decisions should be used daily to guide your strategic reactions. Home Depot's Three-Legged Stool is one example of a strategic framework that can be--and presumably is--used to drive day-to-day decisions. They're focused on customer experience, product authority, and capital allocation. In this simplified example, for every new opportunity or challenge that comes up, a Home Depot manager would ask themself:

  1. Will this remove friction and improve our customer experience? If no, then it's a no go.

  2. Is this a great product that we can offer at a competitive price? If no, then it's a no go.

  3. Will this investment make our teams more productive and efficient? If no, then it's a no go.

For the purpose of the example, I drafted these by converting Home Depot's stated values into questions. A decision framework like this can support your personal goals, as well. When you make choices about using your time, you're often choosing between short and long-term satisfaction.

Framing daily decisions in the context of your annual goals or resolutions then informs menu choices, whether or not to go for a run, or to be lured in by that email offering 40 percent off at Banana Republic.

Few companies or people create a decision framework based on their strategic goals. Instead, they create these lofty strategic goals, but then end up winging it when big decisions come up. Most of us simply don't have the discipline or vision to make choices that align with our long-term goals when we're reacting in the moment. The result is effectively rolling the dice on every decision made.

Often the leadership team will catch and weigh in on the big ones, but will miss the thousands of smaller decisions that are made every day. All of these small decisions are the ones that have the potential to make or break your company. They're the ones that--when properly aligned--add up to a great year or erode progress when managers are doing their own thing.

If, instead of setting strategic goals, you set up a decision framework and direct managers to make choices based on it, you can hold them accountable for their choices.

Published on: Jun 2, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.