A lot of time and effort goes into devising and executing a Strategic Planning exercise. The results can be dramatically improved by following these 11 to-do's BEFORE starting.
Strategic planning is one of those business concepts that is used and misused. Sometimes it’s a wildly popular panacea for all things wrong with the organization (“we’re going to run a strategic planning exercise and fix EVERYTHING”) and sometimes it’s the hated reason for all the problems (“things were going well until management’s last strategic planning exercise”). It should be regarded as an opportunity to build the runway for an organization’s takeoff by building on what works and removing what doesn’t.
Whoever you hire to do the exercise, a Big 4 firm or a freelance consultant, the approach followed is pretty much the same - similar tools, similar workshops, and often the same buzzword-heavy reports. The results are also often similar. However, in my experience, there is a way to make the whole exercise much more successful in that you create a practical, implementable and culturally-aligned strategic plan that actually works. It requires a small amount of often invisible effort BEFORE the exercise kicks off and is based on some rules I’ve developed during my 20 years of consulting with big and small clients that have produced good results – I call them my ‘secret sauce’ for strategic planning success.
Here they are, in no particular order of execution or importance:
1. Get introduced properly – the entire organization should know you well.
The entire organization should know you and should be clear what is your mandate – the email that the CEO should send to introduce you should establish your credibility by explaining why you were the best choice and should explain the scope of the exercise.
If that information hasn’t been shared with the organization every new conversation during the engagement will need to start with a detailed introduction of yourself and a description of your mandate. Its not only a waste of time but can lead to communication errors in case the listener and the speaker aren’t on the same wavelength. A good introduction also can uncover otherwise-missed connections with readers (graduate schools, residential neighborhoods, kids activities, etc.) that give you a chance to quickly build a rapport.
Write a profile of yourself and provide it to the CEO when starting, explaining that it’s what he should send out. The profile should cover your background, what made you suited to the needs of the organization, and some details that will give readers some idea of your background and personality.
2. Have deep one-to-one conversations about priorities as soon as possible
Manage to get some uninterrupted time with the CEO and his/her direct reports before scheduling any further interactions beyond this small group. Ask each person to provide a view on their short and long-term priorities, and if possible, their view on the priorities of other leadership members and whether they match their own. It’s surprising how quickly you can get a picture of strategic and process misalignments, and inter-personal dynamics, when you probe a little.
3. Capture the assumptions important to the organization
All organizations have a set of assumptions – some examples of external aspects can be how their products are regarded by dealers, which markets are core, and which are peripheral, what drives customers buying and referral, and how competitors are positioning themselves. These ‘external’ aspects can be validated relatively easily by research. More difficult are cultural aspects such as what they look for when hiring, attitudes towards diversity, nature and type of celebrations, dress codes, etc. These ‘internal’ elements are built into the organizational DNA and often don’t get questioned or even stated. Some initial observation is needed to define these aspects which can be confirmed during later discussions, and this understanding provides a good basis to develop successful analysis and recommendations dealing with changes in structure and direction.
4. Does the organization know what strategic planning is?
The leadership team will have a clear idea, but not always people at junior levels. Be sure that you clearly explain what is involved in strategic planning and point out the differences between what you’re doing and other kinds of planning such as annual budgeting – people aren’t always clear about what strategic planning covers and think that budgeting and strategic planning are the same.
5. Set expectations of deliverables content and format as soon as possible
When deliverables include detailed reports agree their content and format with the senior leadership team as early in the engagement as you can. If you don’t, you’ve left the door open for well-meant but badly-timed suggestions about the ‘best’ format. These are usually put forward towards the end of the engagement, and you may not have time at that point to make changes in reports.
6. Set schedule for workshops as early as possible
Get the leadership involved in scheduling workshops and deciding attendees. Set the dates as early as possible. This will ensure maximum participation as gives the message that management considers its important, and it gives proposed attendees time to schedule their participation.
7. Embrace the Support Functions
Make sure support functions, especially HR and IT, understand that they also have to develop strategies and make plans. Quite often support functions are an after-thought in the planning process because their plans are assumed to be simply a reflection of business unit strategy. For example, a product-line change involving the introduction of more complex engineering than existing may require HR to develop a new career path, change recruitment processes, and develop additional training content.
However, at the same time, each support function needs to develop its own vision. For example, IT ‘s vision may be to provide the lowest cost service across all regions, achieved by moving to a cloud-based platform. HR’s vision may be to become the most preferred employer. These visions are unconnected to business, unique to the function, and key to each function developing.
8. Don’t throw out the good with the bad
It’s easy to get into the mode of changing things. You need to guard against the temptation to change things for the sake of change. This happens more often than you think when your client is new to the organization or to the job and wants to make an immediate impact by changing things around. Good questions to use before deciding what to change are - what works, what doesn’t, and why?
9. Provide reality checks
Ensure that projections of growth and profitability are based in reality. Refuse to include aspirational statements in strategy or the projections, both from leadership or from teams, without assessing the associated numbers – revenues, market share, pricing, headcount, borrowings, etc. Quite often, numbers which are proposed as targets or the results of a strategy, are simply wishful thinking by the CEO, included without pushback by his team, and need to be reviewed.
One of the best ways to address this issue is to set up a ‘burning platform’ argument right in the beginning, showing what would happen to the organization in the near future. This would be in the form of a spreadsheet that models the business and displays the impact of trends in revenues and costs in the near term. This supports the argument for change/growth by the organization, and also allows planners to estimate what it takes to achieve any discussed growth. Misplaced aspirational growth levels can then be reviewed to see if they are practical/realistic or not.
10. Ensure cross-level involvement
Senior leadership team members are not going to be the ones implementing the proposed strategy on the ground. It is therefore better to include members of the hands-on teams in the discussions, and to have them provide practical pointers based on what they know will work and what will not. Apart from improving the planning output, this will also ensure that implementation starts quickly, and is supported by the teams.
11. Prepare teams for participation – don’t have them come in ‘cold’
Sometimes, taking part in a strategic planning exercise is seen as a paid holiday, especially when it involves participating in offsites. Attendees land up with little preparation, expecting to be fed a stream of information at the venue. This is a colossal waste of time and opportunity. Its therefore better to share a detailed information pack with all the approved output, with each member at least a week before the scheduled discussion; then avoid all discussion of the material beyond a few minutes in the first session.