Strategic Planning: Planning to Plan

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It may sound like the ultimate redundancy, but there’s no denying it:  you can drastically increase your chances of success in your strategic planning efforts by “planning to plan.”  Here’s the point:  you’ll be investing a significant amount of time from the most “expensive” people in your organization in this effort.  Planning to plan ensures that you’ll be maximizing that investment.

What follows is an approach to preparing for a strategic planning process that we’ve honed over many years of work with our own clients.  There’s no “magic” here.  It’s just good, solid ground work that makes sense and builds a firm foundation for planning.

 Picking the Planning Team

Generally speaking, a strategic planning team is usually composed of the CEO and his/her direct reports.  We would say:  Why stop there?  Consider including other key thought leaders and high-potentials from the Company.  They guard against insularity, often providing new ideas and fresh thinking. And they can be of significant help later as you try to get “buy-in” for your plan from the larger organization.  Also, don’t hesitate to include a corporate “maverick” or two.  Remember, when it’s over, you want everybody on board.

Getting A Fresh “Take” On Things

It’s just a truism of corporate life that it’s not always easy or safe to speak out publicly on sensitive issues.  So once you’ve defined the planning team, one of the best things you can do in the run-up to a strategic planning effort is to conduct a series of substantive, confidential, one-on-one interviews with each team member.

If, as we recommend, you’ve hired a neutral, third-party outsider to facilitate your planning sessions, this will be even easier to do.  It’s just a fact that individuals feel “safer” opening up to an outsider who has no “stake” in the company agenda and no political “axe” to “grind.”

Here are just a few of the questions we typically ask in a round of pre-planning executive interviews:

  • How do you personally feel about the prospects for success for this planning effort?  Why?
  • How would you describe the “state of the company” right now?
  • How do you personally feel about the direction in which the company is headed?  Why?
  • How do you define the company’s Mission? Vision?  How much alignment would you predict I’ll find on these definitions among the planning team? Why?

In addition to these, we ask a series of questions about the leadership team:  How effective are its meetings?  What, typically, is the dynamic in the room?  How do they typically arrive at decisions? And so on.

Lastly, a section of our interview protocol is entirely devoted to questions about the CEO:  Does he/she establish clear goals and priorities?  Encourage open dissent?  Make clear decisions? Keep leadership members informed? Motivate and develop subordinates? Etc.  Feedback from these questions is provided, privately, one-on-one, only to the CEO.  People at the top have precious few opportunities to get real, unfiltered feedback from their organizations, and we’ve found repeatedly that this is one of the aspects of planning to plan that CEO’s value most.

The answers to these questions are then tabulated, summarized and presented to your strategic planning group at the outset of your sessions.  In combination with a careful identification of company Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOTs) and a fresh Environmental Scan, interview results help to create a complete, authentic and fresh “take” on your company and your team. They also help ensure that your planning sessions are conducted in a spirit of candor and authenticity so that sensitive or even controversial issues won’t be “finessed,” but, instead, will be dealt with head-on.

Onsite or Offsite?

Next, in planning to plan, you’ll want to give careful thought to where to hold your planning sessions.  We strongly recommend against being “penny-wise and pound-foolish” here.  Yes, you can save money by holding your sessions onsite.  But in our experience, those savings are always far outweighed by the loss of time and focus that can result from interruptions that inevitably occur when extended meetings are held near everyone’s office space.  For this reason we always recommend that you take your planning sessions offsite.

We also recommend you involve your third-party facilitator in vetting and approving your chosen conference space to make sure that it’s conducive to the kind of interactive, highly-participatory approach that good planning requires.  Many an otherwise well-planned strategy session has been sub-optimized by fatigue-inducing cramped quarters, inadequate usable wall space, inflexible seating arrangements and unreliable technology and equipment.  Remember the old saying:  “the devil is in the details.”

Good Planning Takes Time

The last point we’ll make here is that you need to give yourself adequate time.  It’s hard to think of a higher leadership responsibility than planning for the future of your enterprise.  Compromising this imperative because of the press of day-to-day business is putting the proverbial “cart before the horse.”

The interviews you’ve conducted as part of your planning to plan will give you a sense of how much – or little – alignment on critical issues exists going into your planning effort.  We usually figure the less alignment, the more time required to thrash things through and build consensus.  Here you should lean on your neutral, third-party consultant who will have experience with estimating the kind of time and effort required based on what’s been learned.

The bottom line here is that you need to give your planning sessions the kind of time that’s required to develop real consensus.  Any time you spend here will be more than outweighed by the buy-in you generate toward effective implementation of your plan down the road.

Our experience tells us that if you follow these basic recommendations in planning to plan, you’ll go a long way toward ensuring that your planning sessions are successful.   But even more important, you’ll have increased the chances that the plan you produce represents the consensus and commitment necessary to make it a living blue-print for the future success of your business.  And that’s the ultimate payoff of planning to plan!