At its heart, strategic planning is a rational management tool for setting organizational goals and deciding how to reach them. Trouble is, once a strategic plan leaves the drawing board, its implementation is often anything but rational. Why is that?

Often, it's because a strategic plan is only as good as the interactions of the people who are supposed to carry it out. One curious characteristic of being human is that we don't always act rationally. Why? Usually because we have unconscious competing commitments that result in things being kept the way they are. According to Harvard psychologists Robert Kegan and Linda Lahey, this "immunity" to change can slow and even sabotage organizational change efforts.

To overcome this immunity, organizations impose rules and policies meant to control behavior and elicit cooperation. Ultimately, rules and policies produce exactly what they don't intend - unfairness, inattentiveness, and ineffectiveness. Kegan and Lahey call this "organizational disintegrity," and it shows up in recurring disagreements, personality clashes, gossip, rumors, complaints, blame, turf wars, behind-the-back maneuvering, and other interpersonal snafus that hinder performance.

Kegan and Lahey believe the only way to restore organizational integrity is to creatively deal with people's immunity to change. One suggestion is to shift from rules and policies to public agreements. Public agreements are agreements that groups make for how they will work together, and how they will handle interpersonal issues.

Some examples of common public agreements include:

Come to me first. Complaints are handled directly with the person or persons involved rather than through gossip or complaints to others.

Check it out. Publicly inquire about assumptions and perceptions as they arise rather than jumping to conclusions and acting on them as truth.

Say what's so. Honest thoughts and feelings are shared rather than saying what you think the other person wants to hear.

Public agreements are more effective than rules and policies for two reasons.

  • shared ownership and responsibility that supports greater organizational integrity
  • continued personal and organizational learning.

Here are a few suggestions for how to use public agreements to more effectively implement a strategic plan:

Start small. Convene the plan implementors and have them look for existing public agreements and decide how violations are handled.

Identify a problem. Have the group identify one ongoing problem that has hobbled past change programs or strategic plans. After defining the problem, have everyone create an agreement that they believe will positively address the problem. Monitor the agreement. See when it is kept and when it is violated. Hold regular check-in meetings to celebrate growing organizational integrity, refine the agreement if necessary, and talk about any violations. (Talking about violations is crucial.)

Instituting public agreements is challenging work and takes time. However, putting people in the drivers' seat of their own personal and collective behavior is the only avenue to successfully implement strategic plans - because you can't impose motivation; people have to own it.