10/26/2012 05:09 pm ET Updated Dec 26, 2012

Strategic Planning: Establishing the Right Mindset

Laying the groundwork for effective strategic planning involves covering many bases: clearing short-term calendars; picking an approach -- which "tools" or "models"?; deciding whether to go it alone or hire a consultant; selecting a conducive venue -- onsite or off? -- and so on and so forth. These are all important considerations, of course. And to give your strategic planning process the best chance of success, you need to address them carefully.

But there's one aspect of setting the stage for planning that, though far less concrete, is just as important and, in our experience, is often overlooked. That element is mindset. Get it right and you enable and multiply the benefits from everything else you've done. Ignore it or get it wrong and you could find yourself stuck in the mud or spinning your wheels from your first planning session.

The Values of the Process

Over the course of more than twenty years of guiding leadership teams through strategic planning sessions, we've developed a set of principles that we "never leave home without." There's no magic here. Instead, it's simply a question of reviewing these precepts at the outset of any strategic planning effort, discussing and validating them, and developing a collective intent to see that they underlie and inform the way the planning group works together throughout the entirety of the planning exercise.

We call these principles the "values of the process," and they are as follows:

"Beginners Mind"

By traditional ways of looking at things, there's an ego boost to being a member of a planning team. Obviously, someone thinks you know something, feels you are one of the company's "leaders." But remember, "pride goeth before the fall." As Treacy and Wiersema point out in their book The Discipline of Market Leaders: "... executives may see themselves as experts in their industry, but the reality is that they have deep knowledge of yesterday's operating models. Each executive needs a dose of useful ignorance -- beginner's mind, as a Zen master would have it -- to unleash his or her imagination."

It's important for senior executives to consider that, ironically, their vaunted experience can also be a disadvantage. It can bias thinking and block out new insights. In other words, a little humility is in order here, a tough and unfamiliar "act" for some senior executives, but a vital thing to contemplate before launching into your deliberations.

Outward Focus

Since we know ourselves best, there's always the risk of spending disproportionate amounts of time "navel-gazing," and "talking about us," versus looking outward toward the company's operating environment, competitors and, most importantly, customers. We always ensure this outward focus by leading clients through an "environmental scan" that requires a concise, yet complete, assessment of the company's "macro" environment, its competitive "frame," and its industry or industries. You should spend time here -- not debating at this early stage, but dispassionately reviewing and assessing the "facts of the case."

Facing Reality

With a humble sense of what we might not know and eyes turned squarely toward the marketplace and the customer, it's time to face reality. We like very much -- and use frequently -- a quote from legendary former GE CEO Jack Welch: "Face reality as it is, not as it was or as you wish it were." This applies not only to your business environment, and your company, but to yourselves. More of that next.

Planning Team?

It's no secret that executive suites are competitive places. They're composed of individuals who didn't get there by being wallflowers. They have strongly-held views about your company, its operating environment and each other. Admit it, confront it. Get it out in the open. Plan for it. We make the helpful distinction for executive planning teams between agreement and "appreciative understanding." We have them formulate "ground rules" that they all agree to abide by. Here's one of the best.

The Value of the Idea

We borrow again from Jack Welch who, in his early days as CEO at GE said he wanted it to become the kind of company where "it's the value of the idea, not the status of the contributor, that counts." In our view, this is perhaps one of the most valuable principles you can highlight and discuss at the outset of any planning session. We ask executive groups what it would feel like to "leave titles at the door" and so on. Consider, too, that if your CEO runs your sessions you've made it virtually impossible to adhere to this principle. And ensuring that the "value of the idea" wins out over the "status of the contributor" is perhaps one of the biggest reasons companies hire outside facilitators to lead these kinds of high-powered and critical sessions.

Implementation Is Paramount

It's an inescapable fact, that though the ultimate goal of any strategic planning effort is action, the more immediate results are simply words and numbers on a page. The difference between companies that succeed and all the rest is the ability to make that all-important journey from the written word to actions that make a difference for the future of the enterprise. Acknowledging this fact and keeping it front and center throughout the entire planning process is a must. We tell our client executive teams that as challenging as the planning process ahead may be, it's only after planning is over that "the real work begins." And unless it does, all the debates and deliberations, visions, goals and strategies on paper will make no real difference for the company. Admitting that up front is a powerful reminder.

Mental Readiness

Mental readiness is a concept readily acknowledged in athletics, yet we find all too often in a business team setting it gets ignored, perhaps due to the ever-present corporate imperative to "get it done." In many respects, we've found over the years that this is a "pay-me-now-or-pay-me-later" game. In an effort to "get going," you can rush in only to bog down later and burn up the time you thought you saved.

On the other hand, we've seen it proven time and again that time spent getting mentally prepared up front more than pays for itself later. It helps to ensure that a planning team gets off on the right foot with a collective attitude that facilitates an openness to new ideas and a willingness to deal with hard realities in a collaborative way. Consider this: Which mindset do you think is more conducive to developing the best blueprint for your company's future?