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.