Strategic Planning

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Why do so many Strategic Plans simply sit on shelves collecting dust vs. serving as effective blue-prints for change and business success?

Sometimes the problem is the plan itself.  Over a period of more than twenty years of being invited in to help clients “develop a new plan,” we’ve seen many existing plans that lack the kind of concreteness, “actionability” and accountability that’s necessary for a plan to be an effective business management tool.  Plans composed of nothing but lofty generalities and aspirations without what we call “arms and legs,” that is, concrete initiatives, responsible individuals and timetables, may generate initial enthusiasm.  But they usually don’t amount to the kind of practical management tool that ensures follow-through action and business improvement.

Sometimes the problem is the process.  Many strategic plans are developed via the “golden eagle” approach, whereby external consultants swoop in, analyze the company and then prescribe their program for future success.  Strategic plans developed this way risk not generating much internal ownership on the part of the very people who must “make it happen,” namely, the senior executive team and the workforce.

But even when strategic plans are developed internally, oftentimes, not enough people are involved.  Some executives view strategic planning as the exclusive purview of only the very senior-most executives – what we call “planning in a closet.”  Since people are always more likely to get behind something they help create than to support something they had nothing to do with, planning exclusively at “the top of the house” compounds the challenge of getting “buy-in.”

Finally, we have to admit that sometimes the problem is the people.  Strange as it may seem, after all the effort and expense of developing a strategic plan, we have seen CEOs and executive teams simply fail to follow-through in keeping the strategic plan front-and-center and making it a visible, living blue-print for business behavior and action.  There are many reasons for this:  the unexpected, changing priorities, challenges of “running the day-to-day business,” etc., etc.  But sometimes there seems to be a more fundamental cause.  We’ll simply call it the wrong “mindset.”

Some senior executives seem to approach strategic planning as a “chore,” a grudging obligation vs. the all-important dialogue about the shared destiny of the company that it truly is.  There is a huge difference between these two attitudes.  One is just “punching your ticket.”  The other approaches planning with some “fire in the belly” and recognizes that it can make the difference between “business as usual” and business transformation.  Frankly, this obstacle is difficult for even the most competent external consultants to overcome.

We can and do address the “buy-in” challenge, however, and very successfully.  Ours is a team-based approach to strategic planning.  It involves players beyond the executive team and includes mechanisms whereby individuals even further from the top can contribute to and react to the strategic plan, while it is being developed.  This is not token involvement; it represents real influence.

Since nothing breeds commitment like involvement, strategic plans that result from this approach start out with a much broader base of support than those that are hatched “in the closet” by a chosen few.  The fact that individuals well beyond the executive team can rightfully call the result “our plan” makes mobilizing the entire enterprise more likely, and significantly increases the chances that the final plan will make a real difference vs. just gather dust on the shelf!

(For more detail on our Team-Based Strategic Planning approach, including our planning “model” and “architecture,” please visit our Strategic Planning web page.)

Who should be involved in creating a Strategic Plan?

First, it’s important to make the point that there are different ways to be “involved.”  Obviously, there are limits to the number of people who can be seated on what we call, “the planning team,” that is, the people who are part of the actual planning meetings, themselves.  But even here, as we said above, companies often involve too few.  Our recommendation is almost always to go beyond just the leadership team and include other key individuals, thought-leaders, and/or so-called “high-potentials.”

In addition, there are ways of “involving” far more people from the business in between formal planning conferences.  This can be done by asking representatives of other company constituencies to react to “draft” material created at a previous planning meeting and/or contribute ideas and suggestions to be considered at future planning meetings.  (For more on this approach, see our “‘Offline’ Feedback/Input” process on our Strategic Planning web page.)

But the guiding principle here should always be more involvement vs. less, since involvement up-front significantly improves your chances of gaining commitment once your plan is ready for implementation.

What are the key elements of a good Strategic Plan?

Balance is key here.  Any good plan should have its lofty, inspirational elements.  After all, it needs to be compelling enough to make people want to strive for the company’s desired future.  However, in this context, we always like to recall what Thomas Edison so famously said:  “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

And any good plan must include specific, concrete, actionable and measurable initiatives – we call them “Tactics” – along with implementation schedules and the names of people who are responsible for “making it happen.”  (See our “architecture.”)  This kind of plan becomes a real tool for managing and measuring progress week-to-week, quarter-to-quarter, year-to-year – not a three-ring binder, gathering dust on a shelf, that no one ever consults.

It’s also important to note that planning can’t be done in a vacuum.  And although it is never a part of the final plan, a complete “environmental scan” of a company’s internal and external operating environment should be conducted at the “front-end” of a planning process to provide the real-world context and external focus so critical to developing effective strategy.

What’s the right time horizon for a Strategic Plan?

A single, pat answer here is not only difficult, it’s probably wrong.  SONY executives, during the 1950’s, when Japanese products were largely considered “junk,” committed to their vision to “become the company most known for changing the worldwide image of Japanese products as being of poor quality.”  How’s that for being visionary?  And staying with it!

On the other hand, we’ve had clients who find it difficult to look further than a year ahead.  We don’t disagree with this latter position; we just don’t think it’s strategic planning.  It’s business or operational planning, in our view.  Nothing wrong with it.  It’s just not strategic planning.  In the same way that eyeglasses don’t constitute a telescope.

In our experience, what seems to make sense for most clients is a three- to five- to ten-year horizon, depending upon your business, your industry and the pace of change in your operating environment.

What are some of the benefits of effective Strategic Planning?

They are hard to overstate.  Consider SONY, who had the vision – and staying power! – to transform the image of their products from “junk” to one of the most enviable brands in consumer products over a period of more than 50 years!

The theory here is simple:  On the one hand it’s the old, “if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”  On the other, if you pause to consider the future and make strategic decisions about the kind of future you want, you’ll dramatically increase the likelihood that two things will happen:  1) you’ll recognize the things you need to help achieve that future and 2) you’ll increase your focus on those strategic things.  This increases your chances of shaping the kind of future you choose vs. letting events define your company’s destiny.

Here are just a few real-world examples of what we mean, taken from our own client files:

  • One of our clients, in the course of a serious and uncompromising assessment of themselves, took on the challenge of becoming one of Fortune Magazine’s “best places to work” – and achieved the goal within two years!
  • Another, recognizing that achieving their goals would require a much more scientific approach to implementation and measurement, created a nation-wide measurement system and hired qualified resources to implement it, steps that might never have been taken had their planning not crystallized the need.
  • This client, energized by a more coherent vision for the future and a concrete road map for getting there, executed their first five-year plan in three years, significantly accelerating their growth and accomplishments far beyond what they would have been without such a galvanizing and catalyzing game plan.
  • Last example:  This client resolved, as part of their strategic plan, to review and strengthen their key business processes.  They did so, and over a more than two-year period, achieved significant, quantifiable productivity improvements to numerous back-office and customer-facing business operations.

But again – and we can’t stress this enough! – these folks were serious about it.  They meant what they said, and they “walked the talk” consistently and over an extended period of time!

(Click on the following links for strategic planning testimonials from some of our C-level clients from the following companies and organizations:  Polo Ralph Lauren, Noble International, Ltd., The Orvis Company, Inc., Financo,  Trout Unlimited, and the Leominster Credit Union.)