Strategic Planning:  Beyond the Executive Suite

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When you launch a strategic planning effort, one of the first questions you need to answer, of course, is:  “Who should be involved?”  The most typical first response to this question is: “the executive team.”  This usually means the CEO and his or her direct reports.  And, of course, this is a valid answer – as far as it goes.  Problem is, it often doesn’t go far enough and represents a missed opportunity to build ownership beyond the executive suite right from the beginning.

Building “Buy-in” Up-front

We always begin from the premise that implementation is the be-all and end-all of strategic planning.  That is, the words and numbers that result from any planning effort don’t amount to much if they don’t result in effective execution.  And effective execution depends on the “buy-in” and committed action of individuals and groups far beyond just the company’s executive team.

Since nothing creates ownership better than meaningful involvement, we always counsel executive teams to think inclusively.  First of all, that means including players other than simply the formal executive team or committee of the company.

In the more than twenty-five years we’ve spent leading strategic planning efforts for our clients, we’ve learned that with strong, competent facilitation, a team of as many as fifteen or even twenty participants can still be manageable.  This allows a leadership team to add other significant players to a planning team.  But who?

Beyond the “Usual Suspects”

We recommend against letting “the org chart” automatically dictate the answer.  In addition, save a few seats at the table for some “surprise picks” who may not have the formal positions in the company that would ordinarily warrant inclusion, but who get chosen because they are promising, hi-potentials with good strategic thinking skills, from key constituencies in the business.

Beyond the Conference Room

It’s also important to realize that “involvement” can go beyond a physical seat at the conference table.  That’s why over the years we’ve developed mechanisms that enable clients to involve additional stakeholders in the planning process between conferences.

We provide structured opportunities for representatives from these other stakeholder groups to do two things in the course of developing a strategic plan:  1) to provide feedback on a planning team’s draft outputs and 2) to provide input to a planning team’s future agenda items.  This is real, not token, involvement.  It allows a plan to benefit from the views, aspirations and ideas of a far broader segment of a company than planning by a select few ever can.

Orchestrating the Feedback/Input Process

Of course, managing this feedback/input process takes some planning in and of itself.  But we have executed it successfully many times, with the outcome being a stronger, more inclusively-developed plan with built-in “buy-in” for successful execution.  Here’s a quick sketch of how we do it:

Let’s assume that our client’s first planning conference has produced draft versions of the following four elements:  Strategic Vision, Core Values, Mission, and Goals.  (In all likelihood, the second conference will continue with the development of key Strategies and Tactics in support of the Goals defined in the first session.)

From the planning team, we identify “task team leaders.”   Between conferences, each of these leaders will create “task teams” composed of people who are not participants in the official planning conferences, but who are representatives of important constituencies within the company.

Each of these task teams has two responsibilities:  first, to provide feedback on the draft Vision, Mission, Values and Goals created at the last conference and 2) to provide fresh input on Strategies and Tactics for the planning team to consider at its next conference.

To make sure this feedback comes out in a form that’s easy to deal with, we provide guidelines and templates to ensure consistency of format and thematic summaries vs. piles of raw data.  These tools include things like the following:   Guidelines for Convening and Chartering Task Teams; Offline Feedack/Input Instructions and Templates; Strategies and Tactics Development Instructions and Templates, and so on.

We make sure that all teams understand they are providing “feedback” and “input” to the planning process – no more, no less.  The planning team ultimately gets to decide how this material affects the planning process and how much of it actually finds its way into the final plan.

Stacking the Deck in Favor of Implementation

But in our experience, the impact of this broader involvement and idea-generation is always significant.  The plan that results from this kind of approach is always stronger and richer.  But even more importantly, by comparison with plans that get “hatched” behind closed doors, the degree of “buy-in” and motivation is palpable when individuals recognize their own ideas and input in the final, official game plan for their company.

Just ask yourself:  Which planning approach would give you the best shot at successful implementation?