Top Tips for Strategic Planning

I recently had a business colleague ask me for some advice as she embarks on a major strategic planning effort for her organization. That’s a big question, but I gave it some thought and considered some of the “big rocks” that I’ve come across both in my own strategic planning efforts and in the research I’ve done on strategic planning. And, while this really represents just the “tip of the iceberg,” there are some foundational issues that can lead to the success, or lack thereof, of strategic planning efforts.
  • While every organization and planning issue will vary, I’ve found that the steps of an effective planning process generally break down into seven broad categories. I’ve written a whitepaper that offers some specific tips on each of the steps in this process. Bottom line: keep it short and simple. I don’t find that many people embrace the idea of planning and I think a lot of their aversion has to do with the belief that it has to take a lot of time. It doesn’t.
  • To be most effective, planning should be tied directly to operational initiatives. In other words, the plan should not be a separate document or process–it should be a plan that actually guides the real work the organization or business unit is doing.
  • When you conduct a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis–and you should!–make sure that you are using real data inputs from both internal and external sources. Internally this may include sales information, customer retention, capital expenditures, employee/customer satisfaction, etc. Externally it might include pending or current legislation, competitive activity or economic trends. Without real data (e.g. if you’re simply relying on team members’ beliefs) you are at risk of making decisions based on false information that will inevitably lead you down the wrong path: you may, therefore, fail to do things that would have benefited you and do other things that do not benefit, and may even, hinder your success.
  • Prioritize your SWOT analysis through some kind of ranking process to help identify the top items in each category. Cast a wide net when doing this: today’s survey technology can allow you to literally include the input of all of your employees quite easily. There are two big benefits to doing this–1) it involves your employees which can help boost the effectiveness of plan implementation, and 2) it may reveal blind spots or missed opportunities that team members overlooked.
  • Take sufficient time to develop strategies that are really strategies. Too often strategies are really little m ore than restated goals. A great book on strategies is Good Strategy, Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt. Well developed strategies will drive results and innovation and will be generated through creative analysis of your SWOT to leverage strengths and opportunities and minimize weaknesses and strengths. It’s the most important and, I think, most creative part of the process, but too often not done well.
  • The tactical part of the strategic planning process is often the  most challenging and where things tend to fall apart. This is often, I think, because the team attempts to do this themselves and then assign the tactics out to their staff members who haven’t been sufficiently involved in the process. That lack of involvement may lead to disagreement or resistance.  Tactical planning generally works best as a follow-up process involving the natural leaders of each strategy working with their teams, and others who will actually implement the tactics, to I’m to come up with the action plans and then bring the plans back for approval to the team or some other approving body.
  • Embed a process for ongoing reporting, measuring and tweeking of the plan. The plan should be a living document that drives work and action; those responsible should be asked to report progress based on solid metrics and changes to the plan can be made accordingly.
  • Finally, make sure to have a neutral, uninvolved facilitator to guide the process. That is often an external facilitator/consultant, but doesn’t need to be. It might be someone from another department or another organization. Importantly, though, it needs to be someone that is not tied to the outcome in any way and can guide the process from an unbiased viewpoint.

Strategic planning can be a very invigorating and enlightening process–seriously!

What experiences, insights and best practices have you encountered in your strategic planning initiatives? I’d love to hear.

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