The secret to strategic planning…

Through my role at Midnightsky I have had the chance to see a lot of conversation about strategy. It happens formally; like when an organisation is creating their Vision, Mission, Values and (of course) their Strategic Plan. It also happens informally; like when people are deciding which direction to go in the face of a crisis or big opportunity that has emerged.

In situations that are more informal there is often a lot of talking, and that talking can go around in circles. If you’re lucky someone starts asking the questions that are the catalyst for a strategic conversation:

“Why would that help us achieve <insert bigger goal>?”

“How could we turn this situation into an advantage for our <insert bigger goal>?”

“Why are we doing all of this anyway? What are we in pursuit of?”

These kinds of questions make sure that tactical decisions, quick wins that keep the ship afloat, are also strategic in nature. The ship is afloat and still heading in the agreed direction.

In formal strategic planning situations (which we have been involved in quite a few!) there are three key things that lead to developing a successful strategic plan. That is a strategic plan that people understand and commit to achieve.

Over the years that we have been delivering these kinds of plans, these three themes repeat again and again. Organisations that succeed engage the right people at the right time, understand that their strategy is their organisational story, and they create plans that are measureable.

1. Engagement

When the strategic planning process begins the team that has been put in charge are invariably overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task they face. At this moment it can be tempting to reduce the scale of the problem by reducing the number of people who have input to the project, particularly in the consultation. The two groups who often get shafted at this moment are frontline staff and the board.

The conversation goes something like this;

“Yes we are going to engage our <staff/board/stakeholder>. We will develop a draft and distribute it for comment 2 weeks before signoff…”

And the fun begins. This looks like a solid plan, and the rationale is often something around ‘focusing’ the input we get from these groups.

What goes wrong with this approach (almost always in my experience) is that someone, at the eleventh hour, starts asking ‘big questions’, you know, strategic questions.

There isn’t enough time to think about and respond to these questions, because these questions belong at the start of the process, not the end. And if they emerge, for the first time, at the end, and they aren’t dealt with, then you lose people.

Their thinking hasn’t had the chance to influence the outcome, and they disengage. Others see this happening and they disengage, and then you end up with one of those strategic plans, the ones that sit on a shelf gathering the proverbial dust…

All of that is easily avoided. How? Invite everyone to have their say at the beginning of the strategic planning process.

Engage everyone early.

It is that easy.

When I tell people this, they agree in principle, but are often concerned that there will be a chaos. People will say ideas that appear random, they will make unrealistic suggestions, they will be off track. And I say, yes they will. But others will say insightful things, they will observe trends you hadn’t realised existed and they will show you the true heart and soul of your organisation.

Here’s the key, all of it is the raw material that the leadership team get to shape into a cohesive strategic plan. There is no requirement that everything that has been said is documented into the strategic plan.

These conversations are the brainstorm, the first draft, the rough notes. Everyone knows that (if you tell them), and they will feel excited to see the strategic plan that emerges from this discursive foundation. Yes, even if their idea isn’t expressed verbatim in the final document.

Because every conversation is there is some way, everyone had a chance to shape the direction of the organisation, and ultimately this creates a much smoother pathway to approval from all of those people.

2. Story

Your story is your organisation’s strategy.

When the inextricable link between narrative and strategy is understood, then several things happen that amplify the potential of an organisation.

The strategic direction is written in language that people can talk about in the elevator, or at a BBQ. When people are able to share the organisation’s strategic intent in this way they are promoting your story in a way that embeds it in every conversation and is a part of their daily decision making. Ultimately this is a successful strategy; one that people instinctively use to measure success.

A story has a purpose, it has a reason, something that drives the audience along and keeps them listening till the end. This sense of purpose, a greater good, and a reason why, is also what makes a strategy compelling. It’s what turns a business goal to be the world’s biggest manufacturer of solar panels into a story/strategy that has a life of its own, and powers our lives with the sun.

3. Measureable

Ultimately the biggest challenge of a strategic planning process is to create a plan that is easy to measure.

This is often the final hurdle for the leadership team. The vision is clear and our mission is rock solid. Now we have to name our strategic goals and how we are going to measure them.

The enemy at this point becomes detail. How much can we reasonably include? At what point do we overwhelm ourselves with so many KPIs to track that we can no longer keep track? When do we risk missing something important because we have distilled everything to such a high level that it no longer means anything to us?

There are some rules of thumb that we use to help organisations at this moment. It has to fit on one page (not in 5 point font!), you can have a maximum of 4 strategic goals, each of which can have a maximum of 3 objectives and the less outcomes (or KPIs) you can have, the better.

Ultimately these parameters serve as a way to push an organisation to have the tricky conversations about what should stay and what should go. Ultimately it doesn’t really matter if one of these rules is broken. Pursuing them in principle provides a healthy framework for the discussion that will ultimately lead to a strategic plan that is easy for the leadership team to turn up each quarter and measure their success against.

That is the truest indicator of a successful strategic plan; that it is the catalyst for continuous discussion and the cornerstone of decision-making, both formally and informally.

So it’s that easy.

Engage everyone early, understand that your story is your organisation’s strategy, and create a plan that is easy to measure.

Artist, advisor, coach.
I find the real problem, make the difficult easy
and tell a great story.

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