Mention the words “strategic plan” to any seasoned business executive and you’re likely to get an eyeroll. At some organizations, the strategic planning process seems to never end, especially when it serves as the starting point for the interminable iterations of the annual budgeting process. In others, the process is merely a thought exercise that serves as an expensive door-stopper and nothing more. Meanwhile, we see that most organizations have trouble understanding how deep to dive into the details; some end up with a lack of actionable conclusions while others are so deep in the weeds that they lose sight of the bigger picture.
After guiding over 100 organizations through the process of aligning around one common vision, growth strategy, and high-level plan, we’ve uncovered a few best practices that our top-performing clients typically follow:
- Less is more: The goal of a strategic plan is to make clear decisions about what your organization is going to do and what it will not do. In other words, the job of your executive leadership. We find that organizations often feel the need to include too many people, resulting in a slower process with more conflict. Instead, start by asking for input from the organization (e.g., employee surveys & focus groups, customer insights, market trends), but only include C-level executives in the actual planning process.
- Short is sweet: Focus is the key with so many distractions and urgent interruptions in our “always on” world. How to deal? Set aside 1-2 full days with only a couple of daily breaks for outside communication. An offsite setting or nearby retreat is preferred. Do NOT set up weekly or monthly meetings as the tyranny of urgent requests often prevents full, focused participation.
- Get the basics right: Before kicking off any strategic planning conversation, start with a brief homework assignment for the C-suite to revisit key assumptions. What is our mission? What are our short-term and long-term goals? What businesses and markets are in scope and which are out of scope? Why should customers choose us over a competitor? We find that there is often internal misalignment on these and other similar foundational questions.
- Foster open communication: Does your organization suffer from closed-door sabotage or does everyone speak their mind? Too often we see a cult of personality take over a meeting or a lack of full participation lead to poor decisions. If this issue is a concern, you probably need an outside moderator to ensure all viewpoints are heard and to create the optimal meeting format.
- The agenda is key: So with 1-2 dedicated days to talk it out, what on earth should you actually discuss? And how can you be sure you aren’t going to deep or too shallow? Your goal should be to assess the current state, identify points of disagreement, define success, and develop a clear list of next steps. Here is the challenge…every organization is unique and in a different stage of its life cycle. While some organizations need to create a strong foundational structure, others must expand beyond the boundaries of their current markets. To aid in this effort, we have developed a Growth Canvas that encompasses the key questions that we ask when leading strategic planning sessions.
While the guidelines above are important, always remember that the most critical challenge in strategic planning is to make informed decisions that drive future behavior. If you aren’t achieving your growth goals, there is a good chance that the cause of your stagnation starts