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6 steps to make your strategic plan really strategic

This two-part series offers specific practices that can help you get the most out of your strategic planning process. Leveraging Nexight’s extensive strategic planning experience, these posts offer key hints for both approaching the process (this post) and ensuring that your plan is practical and executable (post #2).

Strategic planning is critical to any highly functioning organization. It can serve as a unifying exercise, a roadmap, and a mechanism to re-evaluate or reinforce your organization’s values and direction. While it isn’t easy and takes—among other things—time, focus, organizational discipline, and energy, a deliberate and thoughtfully executed strategic planning effort can help align your organization around a common vision, objectives, and priorities. At Nexight, we also believe that communication, comprehensive stakeholder engagement, momentum, and buy-in are absolutely vital to a robust strategic planning process.

So, What is Strategic Planning Anyway?

Strategic planning. It sounds like one of those overused, consulting buzz phrases, evoking images of boring meetings to review dozens of slides that make your colleagues’ eyes glaze over. Unfortunately, some strategic planning efforts play out this way. But it doesn’t have to be this way; instead, strategic planning can be a compelling, engaging, and impactful process that drives progress and innovation, facilitates team buy-in, and enhances organizational cohesion.

In theory, strategic planning is actually fairly straightforward and simple. It can also take different forms; in fact, you may already be doing it. If you are defining organizational objectives and working to align resources of any type—time, energy, funding, focus—to support the achievement of those objectives, congratulations! You may be the proud owner of a strategic planning process.

Tips for better strategic planning

Pull together a diverse, yet appropriate group of people to make up your planning team. Diversity leads to a better strategy. Bring together a small core team — between six and ten people — of leaders and managers who represent every area of the company.

Allow time for big-picture, strategic thinking. People tend to try to squeeze strategic planning discussions in between putting out fires and going on much needed vacations. But to create a strategic plan, your team needs time to think big. Do whatever it takes to allow that time for big-picture thinking (including taking your team off-site).

Get full commitment from key people in your organization. You can’t do it alone. If your team doesn’t buy in to the planning process and the resulting strategic plan, you’re dead in the water. Encourage the key people to interact with your customers about their perception of your future and bring those views to the table.

Allow for open and free discussion regardless of each person’s position within the organization. (This tip includes you.) Don’t lead the planning sessions. Hire an outside facilitator, someone who doesn’t have any stake in your success, which can free up the conversation. Encourage active participation, but don’t let any one person dominate the session.

Think about execution before you start. It doesn’t matter how good the plan is if it isn’t executed. Implementation is the phase that turns strategies and plans into actions in order to accomplish strategic objectives and goals. The critical actions move a strategic plan from a document that sits on the shelf to actions that drive business growth.

Use a facilitator, if your budget allows. Hire a trained professional who has no emotional investment in the outcome of the plan. An impartial third party can concentrate on the process instead of the end result and can ask the tough questions that others may fear to ask.

Make your plan actionable. To have any chance at implementation, the plan must clearly articulate goals, action steps, responsibilities, accountabilities, and specific deadlines. And everyone must understand the plan and his individual role in it.

Don’t write your plan in stone. Good strategic plans are fluid, not rigid and unbending. They allow you to adapt to changes in the marketplace. Don’t be afraid to change your plan as necessary.

Clearly articulate next steps after every session. Before closing the strategic planning session, clearly explain what comes next and who’s responsible for what. When you walk out of the room, everyone must fully understand what he’s responsible for and when to meet deadlines.

Make strategy a habit, not just a retreat. Review the strategic plan for performance achievement no less than quarterly and as often as monthly or weekly. Focus on accountability for results and have clear and compelling consequences for unapproved missed deadlines.

Check out examples. Although you can’t borrow someone else’s strategy, you can find inspiration and ideas from the examples of others. Here is one website with a catalog of example strategic plans by industry: OnStrategy. Check it out for quick access to ideas.

Strategic planning pitfalls to avoid

Strategic planning can yield less than desirable results if you end up in one of the possible planning pitfalls. To prevent that from happening, here’s a list of the most common traps to avoid:

Not having a burning platform: Fundamentally, organizations don’t have to have a strategic plan. Really, they don’t. Yes, you’ll run a better operation and, yes, a strategic plan is an outstanding management tool. But you and everyone on your team needs to agree on why this effort is important. What’s your burning platform that’s causing you to invest in this effort now?

Relying on bad info or no info: A plan is only as good as the information it’s based on. Too often, teams rely on untested assumptions or hunches, erecting their plans on an unsteady foundation.

Ignoring what your planning process reveals: Planning isn’t magic: You can’t always get what you want. The planning process includes research and investigation. Your investigation may yield results that tell you not to go in a certain direction. Don’t ignore that information!

Being unrealistic about your ability to plan: Put planning in its place. It takes time and effort to plan well. Some companies want the results but aren’t willing or able to make the investment. Be realistic about what you can invest. Find a way to plan that suits your available resources, which include your time, energy, and money.

Planning for planning’s sake: Planning can become a substitute for action. Don’t plan so much that you ignore the execution. Well-laid plans take time to implement, and results take time to yield an outcome.

Not having your house in order first: Planning can reveal that your house isn’t in order. When an organization pauses to plan, issues that have been buried or put on the back burner come to the forefront and can easily derail its planning efforts. Make sure your company is in order and no major conflicts exist before you embark on strategic planning.

Copying and pasting: Falling in to the trap of copying the best practices of a company similar to yours is easy. Although employing best practices from your industry is important, other organizations’ experiences aren’t relevant to your own. Organizations are unique, complex, and diverse. You need to find your own path instead of following a cookie-cutter approach.

Ignoring your culture and organizational readiness: Strategy and culture are intimately intertwined. Ignore this fact at your peril. Culture eats strategy for lunch (and dinner if you’re not careful). With that in mind, adapt your planning to fit what you know works for your organizational rhythm, ethos, and needs right now. A big pitfall — the biggest actually — is not fitting the process to your organizational needs. Consider a simpler process or one that’s more robust.


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