Escaping the Check-the-Box Process

“The problem is that at a lot of big companies, process becomes a substitute for thinking.” Elon Musk, Co-Founder of Tesla Motors and PayPal

“Help Wanted: Looking for a Professional Template Filler-Outer. Lots of experience required. Good pay. No thinking necessary.”

While the job posting is imaginary, the job itself is not. In organizations around the world, millions of hours are spent filling out templates: business plans, marketing plans, sales plans and strategic plans, to name just a few. People are becoming highly skilled at filling up slide decks with information: market data, sales numbers, customer revenues, etc.

Never have so many presentations said so little.

I recently reviewed a strategic plan developed by a regional director that didn’t actually contain a strategy. Honest. I even double-checked. The word “strategy” wasn’t used once.

As managers struggle with growing to-do lists, the real purpose of business planning is often lost. The goal of business planning is to create direction for resource allocation and activities that drive the business. But, too often it deteriorates into a cumbersome, check-the-box process filled with useless templates. Then, it sits idle in a file on the computer until the next dog-and-pony show, I mean, business plan review. As Biogen CEO George Scangos said, “When process becomes more important than content, the company is dead, right?”

What’s been lost in the process, or in some cases has never existed, is the ability to think strategically about the business to generate insights that lead to new value for customers. The 2013 HR Benchmarks Trend book produced by the Society for Human Resource Management cites research showing that the #1 skill job applicants lack is strategic thinking.

There’s a big difference between teaching your people how to fill out templates and teaching them the skills to think strategically about their business. Templates are only useful if they are filled with insights, not information. Novartis CEO Joseph Jimenez sums it up: “People often think that failure is the result of poor execution rather than poor strategy. But sometimes people are just trying to execute against the wrong plan.”

There are three steps you can take to move from a check-the-box process to a strategic thinking approach:

1. Stimulate new thinking.The reason most plans are nothing more than a compilation of last year’s updated goals and tactics is because no new thinking takes place. Identify and select questions, tools and frameworks to productively facilitate thinking and dialogue about the key business issues. Then visually capture the important insights from the discussion using the appropriate strategic thinking tools.

2. Trade bullets for stories. While bullet points offer the quickest route through the template forest, they can leave out critical components in the crafting of the strategic direction. Requiring managers to develop a fuller narrative of their strategy will yield a much deeper understanding of the “how’s” and “why’s” so often neglected by bullet points alone. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Fortune magazine 2012 Businessperson of the Year, says, “Full sentences are harder to write. They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.”

3. Use templates to share insights. Templates inherently aren’t evil. It’s their misuse and overuse that have given them a bad reputation. Selecting a handful of templates that effectively communicate insights regarding important business issues is a part of planning. Accompanying each template should be a brief summary of the key insights drawn from that template. If you have templates in your plan that don’t produce a “so what?” or “take-away,” then pull them out. As former Intel CEO Andy Grove said, “The model doesn’t tell you what the answer is. But it gave us a common language and a common way to frame the problem, so that we could reach consensus around a counterintuitive course of action.”

If you find yourself trapped in a check-the-box process overflowing with useless templates and little insight, you’re not alone. But, it’s not too late to change things for the better. Here’s your prescription: more thinking + fewer templates = better business.