Monthly Archives: December 2017

Strategic Planning – Reinvigorating Your Strategic Planning

After a few years of strategic planning, management teams almost always ask, “How can we put life back into our strategic planning? We’ve achieved great success, but we’d like to have the same level of excitement we had in the first few years.”

This question often comes up for reasons that are inherent in the process itself. First, strategic planning – as an ongoing process – tends to yield easy benefits in the first couple of years, as your team focuses attention on the low-hanging fruit. After a couple of cycles of this, the fruit that is left may seem to be a little harder to reach…and often, it is. Secondly, if your process is well-run, each cycle of planning will seem more like a part of your management routine and less like a special event. This is true of any process that you repeat routinely, but with strategic planning, the first couple of years seem strange and wonderful because good strategic planning is so far outside the norm for most managers. Finally, as your team gains experience with the process of identifying strategic objectives and effectively implementing them, they also learn how much work is involved…and there may be a natural reluctance to commit to the big, exciting projects that bring so much energy to the first few years of strategic planning.

Over the years, I’ve developed exercises to give the ongoing planning process a little more “zing”. In general, these exercises fall into 3 categories:

1. Making the strategic plan more personal – many plans lose their “zing” because they seem to be about someone else…so identifying how individuals affect – and are affected by – the strategy can help reverse this.

2. Giving the vision more substance – sometimes, the vision encompassed in your strategy is too abstract for the team to “get into it”. In these cases, some work on what the reality of that vision will look like can be just the thing.

3. Drilling deeper into specific parts of the strategy – in many cases, there are things just below the surface that can dramatically transform your company. A little digging in some specific areas can turn up gold!

Make it More Personal

While personalizing the strategic plan is one of the most effective ways to bring energy and commitment to it implementation, it’s also one of the most difficult ways to do this. This is because, unlike many of the variables of the strategic planning process, the complexities of the personalities involved pose analytic difficulties that are both broad – covering a wide range of possibilities – and deep – making them far more difficult to unravel than, say, a question of market responses to certain product changes. Even so, there are some ways of working with the personal nature of involvement with your strategic plan that can yield excellent results

One way of driving home the personal nature of commitment to your team’s plan is to bypass personality issues and address the question in a fairly neutral way. An exercise I often use to do this involves asking the team members to identify exactly how they envision themselves contributing to forward motion along the lines of the strategy, and how they see themselves (and their activities) creating obstacles to that same forward motion. As you might guess, it’s much easier to get team members to discuss their positive roles in a group setting. One way around this is to reduce the initial interactions around this to a one on one conversation. It’s also a great exercise to have team members pair up and discuss the positive contributions, then have each member report on the positive elements of his/her partner.

To reassure the team, I like to tell them that this exercise is not about who is the best, or who has the least weaknesses. Instead, I point out that the greatest opportunity in this exercise lies in our ability to find the best adaptations to existing weaknesses – and that the more obstacles we can identify, the more obstacles we can get out of our way.

So…here is one process, in outline form:

1. Ask the team members to pair up and spend 5 minutes describing to their partner the ways they can drive the strategy forward.

2. Ask the team members to spend 3 minutes identifying specific ways they either (have created obstacles to this in the past) or (could create obstacles in the future).

3. Lay out what you consider to be the KEY elements of the strategy in a diagram (say, on a flipchart). Ideally, it’s optimal to have just 3-7 key elements, such as “customer relationships”, “quality processes” or “asset acquisition”. For a FULL description of the modeling discipline I use, see Jay Forrester’s Industrial Dynamics.

4. Ask people to point out where their partners can contribute the most on your diagram, and illustrate it.

5. Ask people to point out where they might/do obstruct the strategy in the same way – but be VERY encouraging about it. The key here is not to fix the person, but to get the pieces of activity that don’t FIT the person moved to someone else. A useful set question here is “How could we accomplish this effectively? Are you the right person for this task? Can we use your skills better elsewhere? Is there a process, person, or piece of equipment that would take some of the difficulty of this activity off of your shoulders?”

6. One of the best ways to really tie this up is to ask the team where they feel they personally can create the biggest improvement in the effectiveness of the company. It is important NOT to permit discussion of what other can do, but rather to keep focus on how you can change yourself, or what you do, to increase effectiveness. At times, I’ve encouraged this by suggesting we will devote resources to the one or two best ideas, but even simple verbal encouragement will generate good results.

The point of this exercise is to really connect team members with the key elements of your strategy. As you progress with your strategy, this exercise can serve both as a reminder of this connection, for the team members, and a diagnostic for some types of implementation issues, for the CEO.

I’ve tried this exercise several times with different clients now, and I’ve been impressed with the results, even with clients who have been through several cycles of the strategic planning process already. There are some critical issues that tend to surface with this approach, and team members feel really good about what we achieve when we put this exercise into the strategic planning process.

Another exercise that helps make participation in the strategy more personal involves identifying key relationships.

Using a diagram similar to the 3-7 element flowchart mentioned in my last entry, you can ask the team which relationships/communication points are most critical to effectiveness in each area. For example, in some companies, the key to effectiveness in customer relationships is the relationship between sales and operations management. Since these areas involve very different mental disciplines, it’s not unusual to find the two departments don’t communicate well with each other, and there may be some excellent opportunities there to improve effectiveness.

One way to dig in to this diagram is to ask each team member how value is created or destroyed for the customer in their department. Once you have identified, say, the top three ways value is created in each department or area, you can draw lines that connect those value drivers to the departments involved. In many cases, this mapping process can identify areas where you can greatly increase your value to the customer by putting a little effort into improving how the involved departments communicate and work together.

After completing this diagram, it’s useful to ask the individual team members how they might improve their role in the identified relationships. You may also want to ask individuals to pick something they do that works well in this area that the other managers might benefit from trying.

I almost always use these tools when discussing strategic issues in the simplified strategic planning process, which is in the second meeting of the cycle.

Giving the Vision More Substance

If the exercises for making the vision more personal don’t have the desire effect, or if I think it will be too time-consuming (which it is), I often short-cut to a discussion of what the company will look like after five years of pursuing the vision we are discussing. Again, I like to get individuals to state this in their own words, and from their own perspective, because I want to ferret out strategic issues that people expect to see but are unwilling to voice. A good way to do this is to ask team members to write down two or three good things about how the vision will affect them and two or three bad things. As with other exercises, don’t focus too much on the bad things, but do be aware they may indicate issues that must be resolved for your vision to get full support from the management team.

Another simple way to give the vision more substance is to attach numbers to it. I normally do a projection of what the company’s sales and profits will look like based on our assumptions and the strategies we are discussing. For many teams, seeing these numbers brings home the reality of what we are proposing better than any other exercise.

Drilling Deeper

When I talk about drilling deeper, I’m definitely talking about a strategic planning process that involves the top management team, and not external stakeholders or media. When you take planning outside the organization, you are generally looking to communicate why your strategy is a good one rather than how you came up with it. An example of what I mean by “drilling down” could be seen in an airline examining the customer satisfaction impact of all the contact points a passenger may have with them. This might involve some detailed analysis of the operation, combined with insights from market research on things that affect customer satisfaction. While it would look tactical to an outside observer, this kind of “drilling down” can identify places where operational, financial, IT or HR practices (to name a few) can be changed to be better aligned with the overall corporate strategy.

This kind of work is unlikely to be productive with the media, because it is time-consuming and hard for them to package. They will, however, appreciate any surprising bit you might come up with. For example, when Sears acquired K-mart, they saw the real estate involved as the key piece of the value of that deal. This was interesting, because it was a merger of two huge retail brands, not just a real estate transaction. The news media were fascinated by this, without really knowing why that made sense for Sears.

Outside stakeholders may have more appreciation for the actual “drill down” process. The best way to handle this with them (if you have the resources) is to walk them through the key questions. They won’t have the data or experience of the management team, but – if you are well-prepared – you can throw those in as trump cards to move the conversation and its conclusions along.

One important point here is that the process of strategic planning is entirely different from the process of communicating the strategic plan. Both are important, but it’s possible to do either poorly if you mix them together without considering how you will affect the quality of the strategy or the perception of the resulting plan.

Hopefully, in one of these three areas – making it personal, giving it substance, and drilling deeper, you have found a nugget or two that will help you reinvigorate your strategic planning process. In any case, you should also consider using an experienced strategic planning professional, because such a person can usually spot issues that may be holding you back and suggest exercises that will get your strategic planning process back on track.

Why a Strategic Plan is Important

As consultants, we work with a variety of businesses across a number of industries as well as non-profit entities. In reviewing the performance of these organizations, it is interesting to note that those businesses that perform at the highest levels usually have some sort of formalized strategic plan in place and have implemented it well.

On the other hand, those businesses that struggle usually have no plan in place and seem to flounder in their attempts to be successful. And many of the organizations that are successful in the implementation of their strategic plans use a simplified strategic planning process to get the plan written and implemented more quickly and efficiently. One of the things that caused some to proclaim that strategic planning had lost it luster was the tendency of some to drag out the process too long and to create more work than necessary. The simplified, rapid development approach has helped immensely in getting good strategic plans developed and implemented.

In order for a business to be successful, there needs to be a road map for success. The development of sound business strategy is a result of the strategic planning process. A significant mistake that is made by businesses large and small is defining critical business strategies without going through this process. A strategic plan helps to provide direction and focus for all employees. It points to specific results that are to be achieved and establishes a course of action for achieving them.

Another common mistake is simply allowing the organization to wander aimlessly without having even generalized goals in place. Having well defined goals, objectives, strategies and tactics reduces the risk of business failure and helps increase the likelihood of solid success. And speaking strictly from the perspective of a manager, owner, director, president, CEO, etc., their own success can be defined by having a well developed strategic plan in place that is well implemented.

A strategic plan helps the various work units within an organization to align themselves with common goals. But perhaps most importantly, the strategic planning process provides managers, owners and entrepreneurs the necessary framework for developing sound business strategy.

Arguably, the leading cause of business failure is not having a strategic plan in place that is implemented effectively. If a business has little idea where it is headed, it will wander aimlessly with priorities changing constantly and employees confused about the purpose of their jobs. And it could chase strategies that have little or no chance of success.

Building a strategic plan is not difficult. It will take some thought and some feedback from customers and others, but businesses should be routinely garnering feedback from appropriate constituent groups on an ongoing basis. The process of developing a strategic plan should be rewarding for all involved and usually helps develop stronger communications between members of the planning team.

Managers and business owners need a well developed strategic plan in order to effectively establish expectations for their employees. Without a plan, expectations are developed in a void and there is little or no alignment with common goals and strategies. A good strategic plan looks out 2 to 5 years and describes clearly what market, product/service, pricing, marketing and other strategies will be followed. In short, it defines how the business will grow and prosper over the defined planning horizon.

Strategic planning does not end once the plan is put on paper. Once developed, the key to making the plan work is a commitment to seeing it through coupled with sound implementation. Unfortunately too many good strategic plans end up on a shelf gathering dust without being even partially implemented. The commitment to not only creating a sound strategic plan, but to its full implementation must be made at the beginning of the planning process.

The strategic plan will contain an action plan that will detail the steps to be taken in order to fully implement the strategies and tactics defined in the plan document. And that action plan will delineate specific deadlines and individuals or teams responsible for completing defined tasks.

Far too many organizations, large and small, fail to develop even basic strategic plans. The absence of a strategic plan is one of the key reasons many businesses struggle or fail. Without that road map provided by a solid strategic plan, decisions are made in a vacuum and/or there is considerable confusion and inconsistency evident within the organization. During tough economic times, the need for a solid strategic direction and plan is even more pronounced because the margin for error generally becomes smaller for most businesses.

All employees need to understand the guiding principles of the business and what everyone should be aiming to achieve. A strategic plan that is well developed, properly communicated, and carefully implemented can launch struggling or underperforming businesses to new heights.

Take a look at your business. Are your critical business strategies well defined? Are they successful? Does there seem to be a lack of focus on where the company is headed? Does everyone clearly understand the goals for the business? Strategically, how will the business achieve those goals? Is your current planning horizon longer than one year? Are you developing annual business/operating plans without a strategic plan in place? Strategic plans should drive or at least help define operating plans and budgets.

Writing a strategic plan isn’t as complicated as some would lead you to believe. Simplified strategic planning has been our focus for some time because too many organizations get caught up in the process and lose sight of what is important. We have found, without exception, that businesses which create and execute sound strategic plans are generally far more successful than those that do not. Remember that successful implementation of the plan is a must. If you write a plan and then allow it to gather dust on a shelf, you might as well have no plan. There must be a commitment to implementing the strategies and tactics detailed in the plan.

Make no mistake about it, if your business or non-profit organization is operating without an effective strategic plan in place, it runs the risk of underperforming or even failure. As mentioned, writing a strategic plan is not difficult and it does not have to be overly time consuming.

The notion that strategic planning has to be a long arduous process to be successful is complete nonsense. In fact, our experience clearly points to a far more successful planning experience and better plans when the plan is completed without a lot of “bureaucracy” and extraneous analyses.

Strategic Planning Only Works With Implementation

Strategic planning only helps organizations when they are kept active and implemented. The strategic plan defines the business direction. That direction is based on the future, the vision of the company. Before an effective strategic plan can be developed a clear and compelling vision is needed. Visions are optimistic, the ideal picture of the future. The strategic plan that results from the leadership team’s strategic planning is the map to that vision and then it is only effective if it is implemented.

Strategic plans can sound intimidating and overwhelming to many small business owners. The most effective strategic plans are those that are simple, completed with the leadership team and key people in the company. Complex documents that consume excessive amounts of time to create don’t guarantee success. In fact, the large and cumbersome strategic plan can be so overwhelming that it just doesn’t work. Strategic planning sessions that go on and on for months also fail because so much time is consumed in the planning and the implementation, which is the key, is pushed aside. The goal to have the perfect strategic plan doesn’t produce results. Instead, the team that engages in strategic planning and produces a good working document is more likely to succeed.

To create your strategic plan:

Start with vision. Write down what you envision for the future. What does the future of your business look like? What do you want for the future? Vision stories are inspiring, it’s your dream. Once you have created your vision you can begin building strategies.

The vision is the destination, where you are going. The strategies are the map that gets you to the vision. Company values are the guide or the “compass” in our map metaphor for making decisions along the way. Values keep you oriented and in alignment. When values are out of alignment the company is off track; not moving in the direction of the vision.

Strategic goals can be limited to the top 6-10. By having fewer goals the plan is able to stay alive and in front of you and the team. By alive, it means that the plan is always where you can see it, use it and keep working on it. It means that the team is focused on the strategic goals at all times, talking about them, brainstorming on them and reporting to each other their successes and challenges.

To set strategies for your business first look at the vision, the different aspects of the vision. Brainstorm all of the goals, all of the strategies for each aspect of the vision. With brainstorming it is important to get all of the ideas out and write them down without judging them or editing them. Often the best idea comes from an idea that at first look seemed too wild or crazy. Ideas jump off of other ideas.

Once you have brainstormed all of the possible goals, prioritize them. Often strategic goals can be grouped with similar strategies. This can help in the prioritization process. The goal is to narrow the list down to the top 6-10 strategies. What are the goals or strategies that will give your business the future you envision, that will create a breakthrough that will produce the results that you want? Those are the goals that you should be selecting as top priorities.

Creating a powerful strategic plan is just one of the first steps. Many organizations have strategic plans that are well thought out and crafted. Where they fall short is in the implementation of that plan. Implementation is the key. If you fail to implement, the results will not be what you set out to achieve.

Implementation is the result of focused and continuous action. Strategic plans don’t just happen on their own: they require your attention. By keeping the plan in front of you and the team responsible for the plan, focus is maintained. Regular meetings about the plan also keep the plan moving in the right direction. Check-in meetings hold people accountable. When teams don’t meet and don’t keep their eye on the plan, the day to day interferes and the status quo remains. In order to make changes in the results that you achieve there has to be intention and commitment on the part of the team. The check-in meeting gives the team the opportunity to review what is happening, what is interfering with the results they want and need and make the changes necessary to change the outcomes. Through the intention of the leadership, the plan and the team, the culture of the workplace can shift from one of non-performance to one of performance focused.

Performance focused companies are companies that are thriving. The energy of high performing teams shifts the energy of the whole organization. It becomes more positive and contagious. People become excited about the vision, the plan and their implementation of the plan. Results create energy and excitement that keeps the plan moving, it propels the plan and the ultimate results of the company.

Organizations that produce results have a clear vision of the future; have a plan that is simple and strategic; and they work on the plan all the time. Their actions are designed to move that plan forward. They don’t let themselves or others get in the way. Through effective strategic planning and by implementing the strategic plan organizations achieve results.