Facilitating strategic planning sessions is one of our favorite things to do. With over 20 years or experience at what does and doesn’t work, it is a sweet spot for us. Strategic facilitation engagements give us a chance to practice a hard-to-develop skill: drawing out the wisdom and intuition of the people in the process, especially from those who have something to say but aren’t sure how to say it.
Note: I am not fall into the traditional trap or insult your intelligence by explaining the difference in a strategy or a tactic. I Googled over 58 million references to those terms – create your own definition!
I don’t use a formulaic approach to strategic planning, but the school of hard knocks has taught me some simple guidelines for managing the process. If you are a senior leader or business unit head preparing to do some strategic planning, I hope these help:
Set a realistic timeline. We have never seen a great strategic plan come together in less than a few weeks. More typically it takes 2 -3 months to develop a completed plan with all the associated research. For really big, multi-stakeholder plans with inexperienced organizations, the process may take even longer. However, don’t let the process drift on too long; people lose their mojo for it after a while, partially because most of them have real jobs in addition to working on the strategy.
Recruit involvement at the right level. The key to executing on a strategy is engagement, and engagement happens best when those involved had a hand in what, exactly, it is that they are executing on. For organizations with over $1 billion in revenue, it is not uncommon to have a team of 20 or more people involved in plan development at some point. The skill is knowing who to involve, and when. Everyone involved in developing a strategic plan needs to qualify in at least one of two areas: 1). Is their leadership and involvement essential to the plan’s execution? 2). Do they have accurate, intimate and deep knowledge of the customer or market?
Speaking of execution, think “execution” at the same time as “strategy”. A good plan superbly executed beats a great plan poorly executed every time. As a CEO mentor of mine once said, “Perfection is a luxury we can’t afford.”
Oversimplification is an enemy, not a friend. If it were simple to build or execute a strategic plan, real “planning” would not really be needed. Big organizations usually have complicated strategic plans with lots of moving parts and interconnected initiatives. Fearing their plans are too complicated or too complex, I’ve seen leaders attempt to oversimplify their plans so their CEO’s or Boards of Directors can easily understand them. This approach almost always backfires. Don’t shy away from complex plans where complexity is needed, but DO focus on explaining the complexity as simply as possible.
Think “Future State”. As the saying goes, “begin with end in mind.” Before diving into explanations of how to get from point A to point B, describe the future and what points A and B look and feel like. As a result of the strategic execution, how do people interact differently? What ROI or profit/cost breakthrough barriers have they overcome? Write in the present tense but write as if you re in the future and things are better. Then, tell the story of what you/the organization did to get there.
Make it measurable. Describe what the future looks like not only in terms of feel good metrics like morale and customer satisfaction but also in “hard” metrics like sales, savings, efficiency increases, market share capture, new business generation, etc. If you are like most people, you’ll find this hard. Stick with it and remember, your goal here is not perfection but to set some real and important targets to aim for.
Speaking of vary, make sure the plan has VARI. It’s an acronym and it speaks to making sure the plan has clear accountabilities throughout. Accountability begins with authority. The owner of the plan or elements of the plan have the right to Veto the decisions of the people below them. They also have the authority to Assign roles and delegate tasks. Part of having authority is also being able to Recognize and Reward people or groups for achievement. Likewise, if someone on the team isn’t able to keep up or support the process, the leader needs to be able to Initiate removal from the team.
And finally Strategic plans are stories, not spreadsheets. Build the narrative that explains the plan, what the future looks like and how it makes sense. Bulleted superlative statements or glib one-liners aren’t plans, they are sound bites open to wild misinterpretation. Spreadsheets convey data that may be a rationale or driver of the plan, but they aren’t the plan itself. If the team is missing a good writer, hire one who knows how to listen and tell a good story.