I have either worked in or served accounting firms since 1990, and I see a number of consistencies from firm to firm. My greatest observation is that most, if not all, firms find it difficult to implement great ideas. These ideas may be in the form of a strategic plan, stem from a formal marketing plan, or be the result of a niche plan.

You get the idea.

For discussion purposes, let's refer to the implementation of a strategic plan. Because our firm has observed the difficulty that firms experience in implementing their strategic plans, we have also spend a great deal of time and effort helping them create plans that maximize the likelihood of making a difference - plans that have a decent chance of being implemented!

A successful plan generally includes a number of common elements; however, the most successful plans are built with clarity. While clarity does not guarantee success, it is certainly the secret ingredient.

Clarity is a prerequisite for changing individual behavior. Think about it for a moment: How do staff members in an accounting firm achieve their goals if they don't understand the goals that they have been asked to accomplish, or don't understand how the goals impact their daily activities? A plan, therefore, must be built upon two clear foundations. First, the plan must align with a clear vision. Second, the plan must outline clear goals that are necessary to achieve the vision.

Let's first tackle the issue of clear vision. A vision articulates where the firm is going. Vision is crucial because its key purpose is to provide team members with an understanding of the firm's direction. As such, the vision statement needs to be clear. Imagine a lighthouse with windows so dirty that incoming ships are unable to use the light as a directional tool. The lighthouse may have a purpose, but no one would know it. Similarly, a firm may have a purpose, but no one would know it if its vision statement was unclear.

The litmus test of whether a vision statement is clear is to ask each employee in your firm the following questions: What does our firm's vision statement mean? Do you understand your individual, team and departmental goals and how they help the firm accomplish this vision? If you get wildly different answers, you may want to consider a vision statement that measures whether you actually arrive at your desired destination. Here is an example of a clear vision statement:

Our vision is to become a firm that:

* Is consistently in the top ten locally owned firms in the marketplace;

* Has less than 5 percent turnover each year;

* Is the leader in providing services to the health care industry; and,

* Generates overall scores of 4.5 or higher from our annual survey.

The second and, perhaps, most critical element to maximize your firm's chances of implementation is to develop clearly stated goals. Goals are those activities necessary to achieve a firm's vision. The goals I'm talking about aren't just firm goals; they are also those that trickle down from the firm goals to each department and eventually to each individual.

S-M-A-R-T is a well-known acronym to help individuals and organizations develop good goals by outlining some core requirements of goals. "Smart" goals are:

* Specific. The goals that your firm sets must be well-defined and understandable to anyone who has a general understanding of your firm. For example, "We need to increase profitability" is not specific. While "We will increase our realization rate" is specific, it is not measurable or deadline-driven, but read on.

* Measurable. Develop goals that allow you to chart your progress toward your goal. For example, "We will increase our realization rate from 84 percent to 90 percent" is measurable. The firm not only knows that it achieved its goal, but is able to chart its progress along the way.

* Achievable. Make sure goals are achievable given the existing circumstances. Goals must be something you are willing and able to accomplish. For example, it may not be realistic to develop a $1 million health care practice within your firm over the next year when your total firm revenue is $3 million and you have no team members with health care experience.

* Relevant. Each goal - whether personal, team, departmental or firm - must tie back to the vision statement. Firm goals should tie directly to the vision statement, departmental goals need to flow from the firm goals and, finally, individual goals need come from the departmental goals.

* Time-bound. It is critical to develop a time frame in which the goal will be accomplished. For example, "We will increase our realization rate from 84 percent to 90 percent by Dec. 31, 2005."

Beyond clarity

As mentioned in the opening paragraph, developing both a clear vision and clear goals are not the only ingredients that influence plan implementation. Creating a system of accountability, ensuring that the vision is shared amongst key stakeholders, and analyzing what is currently working and not working are also important ingredients and significantly impact a firm's ability to implement its strategic plan.

Basic human nature dictates one's level of commitment to achieving an objective, and commitment increases when we know other people are counting on us to hold up our end of the bargain. Strategic plans, therefore, must incorporate a system of accountability.

Regularly scheduled meetings are still often the best forums for monitoring progress toward goal achievement. While entire articles, books and workshops are dedicated to how to set up and run effective meetings, there is one guiding principle: Try to keep meetings simple, brief, for the benefit of the team, and focused on clearly stated objectives.

A clear vision and related goals have little chance of benefiting the firm if they are developed by one person or a small group of people. At The Growth Partnership, we always say, "No involvement, no commitment." At a minimum, the vision needs to be the product of the key stakeholders (i.e., the partner group). The more people (e.g., team members, clients, etc.) you can involve in developing your vision, the better.

Another common flaw that we regularly observe in our client firms is the desire to develop a strategic plan before reviewing what is currently working and not working. The first step in developing a plan should always be in diagnosis. We've often heard Einstein's definition of insanity - doing the same things over and over and expecting different results. As such, a firm needs to create and accomplish different goals and objectives to create different results. It is nearly impossible to develop an appropriate vision and corresponding goals without a clear understanding of your current situation.

Although creating a strategic plan with clarity seems to be common sense, it is not common practice. Whether your firm is attempting to implement a new initiative, idea, marketing plan or strategic plan, clarity is certainly the secret ingredient.

Register or login for access to this item and much more

All Accounting Today content is archived after seven days.

Community members receive:
  • All recent and archived articles
  • Conference offers and updates
  • A full menu of enewsletter options
  • Web seminars, white papers, ebooks

Don't have an account? Register for Free Unlimited Access