It's Strategic Planning Time!

July 4, 2010


The purpose of this article is not to teach how to do strategic planning but, rather, rethink what it is and why to consider strategic planning differently.

Strategic Planning is one of the most misunderstood and misused initiatives in business today. Some believe it is long-term planning, a way to flush out investment opportunities, or a way to let shareholders know where the business is going. Most believe it is all of the above and then some – the all-inclusive process.  Another assumption of Strategic Planning is that it is an event. A lot of companies have a strategic planning period or a specific time frame that senior people in the company get together to chart the course of the business. Once completed the output becomes a documented business plan that is ready to be executed against. Learn a lot throughout the following year,define benchmarks, and it’s time to do it all over again.

Strategic Planning  Can Create Business Breakthroughs

Consider the following:

-All strategic plans are based on primarily what is known leading up to the time of the planning.

-A lot of Strategic planning inputs are current performance metrics which are more about “what is” and less about “what is possible”.

- Most strategic planning processes do not allow for the refinement of the plan on a real time basis.

-Traditional Strategic Plans are the “output” of analysis and projections and not the“input” to a continuous formal way to evolve a business.

As most businesses plan annually, report quarterly, and measure monthly, trigger points around time have become the way businesses think. Even on the human resources side of the business most companies review performance yearly and give increases out annually. The element of time frames has crept into not only how we plan and manage but how we think. As we all know businesses flow continually, we learn daily, competitors act when we least expect it, and clients change on the fly.  We must figure out how to consider time (3-5years for strategic plans) and the constant evolution and learning that goes on as we look into the future. Capturing this in a way that allows for meaningful modification and linked actions is the trick.

Most strategic planning methodologies I have seen are nothing more than a ”more inclusive  and longer term business plan” with the addition of a category of “When the business grows up we want to look like this” section with verbiage that supports exponential growth rates and plans to take over the world. It’s always easy to predict big changes in the business when you look out over a 3 to 5 year period. Who can argue with your long-term assumptions as they are exciting and there’s always that chance in several years you’ll have moved on and not there to blame .

The best definition I have seen for Strategic Planning is:

Strategic Planning is the method by which a community continuously creates artifactual systems to serve extraordinary purpose.

Sounds a bit theoretical,detached and fluffy huh?

Think about the key words in the definition…

Method signifies that strategic planning is not an end within itself. It is to be judged only by the results it produces, therefore it cannot be so rigid that it must be served, instead of its serving the purpose.

Community is the place (metaphorically)in which one sees himself or herself reflected back. It is the common core of values that transcends anything else.

Continuously implies that strategic planning is not an event; it is, in fact, a way of life, the only way of life.It is not a project to be completed; it is not a series of plateaus and valleys. Rather, it is a process of continuous discovery.

Creates captures the power of strategy to actually bring about impacting changes to systems, services, products, etc.that are not just new in time, but especially new in kind.

An artifactual system simply admits that any construct arising from planning is merely an means to an end; none is a permanent fixture. And it is expected that their life will be limited to their usefulness.

Extraordinary purpose states the only reason for strategy. That reason is the commitment to unprecedented possibilities. It is a tribute both to the intuition and boldness. It compels the development of extraordinary capacities, and so it always calls forth the best in all persons involved in the pursuit.

Away to create more clarity around this is to more clearly differentiate business planning from strategic planning.

Use the annual business planning cycle to build an aggressive yet obtainable business plan. Work hard, debate,and challenge business units to get the plan in place and then switch gears and put the same energy and commitment into helping make the plan realizable.

As an example monthly business reviews against the plan become less of a review of misses and dissecting the things that went wrong and more about aligning the organization to “enable” the business unit to meet and/or exceed plan. In other words work towards eliminating excuses. Allow them to be part review and part preview.

This is also the opportunity to assure the direction of the business unit is in-line with the constantly evolving Strategic Business Plan and the Strategic Business Plan objectives are translated into actions that support it.

The plan then becomes everyone’s responsibility to support and the specific business unit’s accountability to make. Plan reviews take on a totally new dynamic. It is now about innovation and problem solving and less about trying to catch someone on the team who can’t answer the question of “Why did you miss?” or “tell me about that customer you loss last month?”  Additionally, instead of just applauding the over achievements how about innovating around sharing the success formula and leveraging even better results sometimes required to make up for other business units that are behind. Often it’s more successful to challenge a business that is at 110% of plan to improve than to expect a business that is at 80% to make a similar improvement.

So How Does The Strategic Planning Process Work?

Consider the Strategic Planning Process similar to the development of a self-organizing process. Self-organizing requires continual reference to company values, discussing these values, and continued shared reflection around the management system’s current processes.  As the Strategic Plan considers the starting and ideal endpoint, the output of the plan must deliver ample information for the company to act on taking the most effective steps to:

1. Clarify and articulate the organization’s cultural values. This will reinforce the culture required to get to your objectives.

2. Articulate the vision for the organization. This will help establish the direction.

3. On an ongoing basis, e.g.,once every quarter, dialogue about what changes are occurring in the economy, technology/services,your competitors (inside and outside your industry), your industry, and your clients.

4. Continually remind yourself and others that this type of planning is never really “over with.”

5. Be very patient. Alignment and momentum take time.

6. Focus on learning and lesson method. The only way this type of planning works is if education and learning is an integral part of the process. More innovation and “out of the box” thinking will occur.

The Strategic Plan is a malleable organized set of goals whose output creates the road map for what is possible.

-The business plan supports the direction the strategic plan

-Human Resources is aligned to the strategic plan developing the best practices for recruiting, benefits, leadership training, and communication programs to assure success

-Operations can now look more accurately to where it needs to be and better balance short term objectives with long-term requirements.

-Finance will now have a more accurate road map for the fiscal needs and drivers of the company.

-Information Technology can now react less to immediate demands and start charting the course for the requirements of the future optimizing current investments against the identification and deployment of new technologies.

The strategic plan is actually as much about the philosophy and emotion of a company as it is about the content of the plan. Think if it as a living document that articulates the future direction and expected results of the company.

I will plan on providing more specific details underneath the strategic planning model over the next several months. For now just try to get comfortable with the idea knowing this is a different and possibly better way to move your business in the right direction – get comfortable with right being redefined and optimized on a regular basis . This approach to Strategic Planning will rally employees to take an active role through knowledge and inclusion. You will get the collective energy, talent and intelligence of a company aligned and focused on “what is possible”.

About Frank Picarello

Frank is a well-respected leader in providing technology services to small and medium-sized businesses. He is currently COO for TeamLogic IT, Chairperson for CompTIA's Small Business Owner's Group, and a member of CompTIA's Unified Communication Committee.

View all posts by Frank Picarello

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