Everyone has a story of being burned by strategic planning; you invested time and money into a process, and, despite finding value in the process, saw no long-term impact on the organization.
So, many leaders and organizations just don’t bother. It’s a major undertaking, and for what?
But what’s the alternative? Trudge forward into the darkness, hoping it all goes where you want it to?
You must have a strategy. And you must engage in a planning process to create it.
Only 4% of small and mid-size businesses in North America contribute over 90% of the growth in GDP from the sector. What’s happening with the other 96%? The gap is strategy and leadership. In the absence of strategy, there is, at best, lost opportunity, and, at worst, pain, suffering, and decline.
And most know this. Which is why I have clients. Despite less-than-impressive past experiences with strategic planning, they pick themselves up and soldier on. They try again.
I want to help you avoid a wasted effort. I hope this article will be a helpful resource as you embark on your next strategic planning process. In it, I attempt to address four reasons strategic planning often fails:
- We don’t really know what strategic planning is
- We don’t really know why it matters
- We underestimate the importance of process
- We don’t commit to the process, to bringing it to life, and to keeping it alive
What is strategic planning?
Strategic planning is the process that results in a strategy.
OK… so what’s strategy?
Strategy identifies a challenge and an approach to overcome the challenge. Technically, strategy isn’t the why or the what, it’s only the how; how we will overcome our challenges. But when someone says, “strategic plan”, they’re nearly always talking about all three: why, what, and how.
Here are the key components of a strategic plan:
Vision: Clear, concise, aspirational statement of what you hope to be achieved because of your actions. (why)
Mission: Clear, concise, focusing statement of what you do as a company in pursuit of the vision. (what)
Outcomes: Short list of results that represent where you want to be in the medium-term. (what)
Metrics: Short list of quantifiable targets that represent how you will measure success in the short-term. (what)
Strategic Imperatives: Short list of things you must get right to achieve the “what”. (how)
What makes it all “strategic” is that they must all be connected. It is a future-back exercise with a today-forward test. You should be able to look at the how and make a direct connection to the what, and a connection from the what to the why.
Good strategy can be captured on a single page. It’s not a 50-page implementation plan. It’s not a plan at all (no wonder everyone is confused…). It’s a guide that tells you where you’re going and what you need to get right to get there.
It should be simple. It should be almost obvious.
If you look at your completed strategy and think “well that just makes sense”, and you look at the strategic imperatives and think “these are all connected and they support each other”, you might have a good strategy. (If you want to learn more about how to spot good strategy, read Good Strategy / Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt. In fact, stop reading this article and go read Good Strategy / Bad Strategy.)
Strategic planning, then, is the process of bringing together perspectives to confront the reality of where you are today, align around where you want to go, and define an approach to get there.
Why does strategic planning matter?
While the strategic plan, or strategy if you prefer, should be simple and obvious in the end, it’s not a simple process to get there. It’s a lot of work. But it’s worth it.
One of my clients captured this well…
“It wasn’t easy, sometimes painful, but it’s been great; it feels like a different company.”
Done well, strategic planning takes time, money, determination, and, sometimes, pain.
If I haven’t scared you off yet, here are a few reasons to do it:
A single, future-focused vision. If you all have different ideas about where you’re going, you’ll be pulling in different directions, and you’ll struggle to make progress as an organization. And, individually, you’re going to wonder what it’s all for. With a single, future-focused vision, you will have a driving purpose and strong anchor for the strategy.
Draw out perspectives. If you don’t understand and consider the right perspectives, your strategy will not be as strong as it could be, and the team will not be committed. With a strong process that draws out perspectives and aligns key stakeholders, you will have more than a piece of paper; you will have a roadmap that people understand and are committed to.
Align your activities. If your plan is a list of random activities, it isn’t a plan, and it’s not strategic. It’s a list of random activities. The key to success is alignment. Both alignment of people around the plan, and alignment from the top of the plan down. Each piece should connect and allow you to align individual activities towards a common pursuit.
Eliminate pain. If your challenges (aka pain points, issues, problems…) aren’t resolved, there will be pain. If there is discord or misalignment on the team, there will be pain. If you aren’t sure where it’s all going, there will be pain. Strong process, resulting in a strong strategy, with strong implementation, will eliminate the pain.
Results. When done right, strategic planning with implementation will change your business. Despite the criticisms, research shows that strategic planning has a significant impact on organizational performance and is particularly potent in enhancing effectiveness (versus efficiency). It also shows that formal approaches to planning create better results.
How do we do it right?
You’re convinced! It matters! But how do we avoid the fate of so many?
I’m sort of not kidding. It is tough to run a good process internally. We need you at the table, not running the meetings. But whether you engage external support or decide to DIY, here are some principles to follow:
Invest and commit. You get what you pay for and what you, the leadership team, put into it. If you don’t really want to do this, if it’s not one of your top three priorities, if you’re doing it to appease staff, you’re wasting your time.
Recognize that it isn’t a one-off exercise. It is the beginning of an even longer process. With the strategy developed, there is ongoing time and effort to monitor, recalibrate, and keep it alive and on track. Once you blow the lid off strategic planning, commit to enhancing the strategic functioning of your organization. For good.
Be clear on roles. Staff don’t set the direction. Your members don’t get final say on the plan. The board doesn’t own strategic planning. Here’s a simple way to look at it that applies to most organizations: owners set high-level expectations for management and management creates the strategy with input from the board and staff.
Consider how you will align internal stakeholders. The board, the leadership team, the staff. How will they be engaged in the process? How will you create alignment and buy-in around the plan? You could, in theory, come up with a very good plan alone on a mountaintop, but if the right people aren’t heard through the process, and you don’t have buy-in to bring it to life, implementation will fail.
Make choices. If you’re not making choices to do some things and not others, it won’t be a good strategy. Your strategic plan should provide both clarity and focus. I have seen many plans created by bringing together perspectives then mashing them all up in a way that everyone gets what they want. I get initiative A and you get B and we get to do everything we were already doing and everyone’s comfortable. Fail.
Simple, future-back, and integrated. I covered this above, but it’s worth repeating. A good strategic plan is simple, future-back, and the pieces all support one another.
Consider how you will bring it to life. If you are willing to invest to build the plan, but aren’t thinking about what comes next, you’re setting yourself up to fail. Consider whether you might need outside help to stay on track and keep it alive, and factor that into your budget. Outside help or no, expect to shift a slice of your and the leadership team’s time to strategy implementation and monitoring.
OK, But Really, How Do We Do It?
Here’s Ignite’s simple seven step process:
Identify desired outcomes. What does success look like? What would make the process worthwhile?
Identify perspectives needed. Board and leadership team always. Staff, members, other stakeholders sometimes.
Gather perspectives. Connect with all key participants in advance to understand perspectives on the challenges, opportunities, vision for the future, and desired outcomes for the process.
Identify themes. What did you hear? What are the common threads? These are the things you must discuss and address in the planning process. And these themes will provide insight into what will emerge in the final strategy.
Develop strategy. Gather key participants to discuss what needs to be discussed and align around a strategy. This usually includes discussing the landscape, creating vision and (sometimes) mission, and identifying outcomes, metrics, and strategic imperatives.
Assign accountabilities. Assign a senior sponsor or lead to each strategic imperative with accountability for building out a tactical plan for the year and shepherding implementation.
Document. Keep it simple. Summarize the discussions for future reference and get the strategy on one page.
Cascade throughout the organization. Share the strategy with those responsible for implementation. Directors, managers, staff. Seek their considerations on how to bring it to life.
Bonus: Virtual or In Person?
It doesn’t matter. Just do it.
Done well, strategic planning is magic. The planning process, though, is only half the magic; the other half is what you do with it after it’s developed. The planning phase is tough to do on your own; an external consultant will bring neutrality and expert facilitation and process design, not to mention capacity.
You can, however, bring it to life on your own. So, don’t feel that engaging in strategic planning means committing to external implementation support for the rest of your life. But do consider your past experiences, who you are, the current level of strategic functioning of the organization, and your team’s capacity, and accept that you may need help getting started.
Published by Ali Grovue
Strategic Planning Facilitator | Leadership Development Consultant | Naval Officer | Former COO & ED