When we talk about strategic planning, many clients reluctantly admit they think strategic planning is a waste of time. The last time they wrote a strategic plan was five years ago (or longer), and that old relic sits dusty on a shelf and has little to do with how the business works today. It was obsolete as soon as it was written, and there is no tangible evidence it made any difference to business results.
As a strategist at heart, I cringe to hear these stories, and yet I know they are true for many, maybe even most, companies.
Leaders know that thinking strategically, understanding market dynamics, setting long term goals and aligning around clear priorities are the "right" things to do, and yet it often leads to little or no change in the business. With so little impact on results, it is no wonder that most leaders regard strategic planning as a waste of precious resources, and prefer to spend their annual strategic offsite doing more practical and tactical activities - like reviewing the pipeline, or product planning, or moving forward the critical project of the moment.
At some level, leaders know that strategic planning time is important, and yet they can't seem to remember what the real benefit is, or how to make sure they get it.
In reality, most companies are pretty good at much of the strategic planning process. They can identify their own strengths and weaknesses, they can analyze changes in the marketplace and make intelligent assumptions about what will be important in the next two to three years. They are also fairly adept at outlining options for moving forward, and some are able to make the hard choices about what to do, and what to stop doing. Where most companies really fail in their strategic planning is in planning to succeed, or creating a clear implementation, monitoring and strategic adjustment process and then following it.
To make strategic planning valuable, there are a few key guidelines:
Start with what you already know. You are experts in your field and are constantly collecting data on what is working and what isn't. Start there. You probably know much more than you realize.
Fill the critical gaps. Determine which critical pieces of information you really need, and go collect just that. Too much data is as bad as too little, and encourages paralysis by analysis. Define the questions to be answered before you start looking for data.
Identify not only what you will do, but what you will stop doing. Scale the new initiatives to fit your resources. A long list of new projects may be too ambitious for your team. If you must add new initiatives, be clear about which old activities will be coming off the plate, or how you will create new resources to make any new initiatives successful.
Connect your key strategies to specific actions, dates and people. Implementation is where most strategies fail. Plan for success by making every strategy concrete, and reviewing progress toward the goal on a regular basis.
Hold yourselves accountable to the plan first. Every activity in the business should connect to the strategic plan. Ask yourself, "Is it in the plan?" when you undertake every project, meeting or activity. If it's not in the plan, you shouldn't be doing it.
A great strategic plan is a living document that governs how you run the business. It isn't an infrequent exercise that gathers dust. Rather it becomes a guiding plan to measure progress against, and to revise as new market dynamics or internal resources and constraints become obvious. It is the core document in monthly, quarterly and yearly reviews, and department or functional goals are derived from this central plan.
If you follow these simple guidelines, strategic planning can stop being a dirty word in your management vocabulary and be one of the most important and practical tools driving your business growth and success.