Most of the enterprises I’ve worked with have been strategically minded, focused on sustained growth and profitability. Some had written plans; others did not. For those that did not, but ultimately opted to initiate a formal process, they found a bumpy road, often cluttered with false starts. In the end though, most felt it was worth the ride.
If you’re embarking on this journey or trying to energize the one you have started, here are a few things I’ve learned along the way:
• Use a facilitator. Trying to lead such an effort on your own risks the process being viewed as ‘your show.’ The facilitator should have general knowledge of your business and be skilled in strategic planning. Keep an open mind though; the facilitator you start with may not be the same as the one you stay with.
• Approach strategic planning as a process, not an event. Generating a comprehensive document only to use it as ‘show and tell’ and then collect dust on a shelf is a waste of time and money. The plan should ultimately be a ‘living’ document, refreshed and measured quarterly.
• Limit the number of initial participants. I’ve seen meetings where there were so many invitees they resembled more of an audience than an interactive panel. You can always add others to the mix for the next meeting; it’s a bit more difficult to exclude those who have already attended.
• Prepare your participants well. At least the first time around you’re asking folks to step out of their comfort zone of regular/recurring duties and responsibilities and to ‘free’ think. A difficult adjustment if your day is usually guided by phone calls, emails and texts! Let them know ahead of time what to expect and refresh that again when you kickoff.
• Be transparent. If participants’ access to specific data related to the process is restricted, it is likely that they will feel less than fully invested with reported results such as ‘5%’ up’ versus ‘an increase of $2,780.000 or 5% over last year.’ To me, lack of transparency is a process run for optics, not results.
• Consider setting the initial bar on your own. I’ve watched groups struggle with where they think an enterprise should be five years from now. It’s not unreasonable to set the parameters for all to work with, e.g. expansion west to the Mississippi and organic revenues and profits doubled within six years.
• Bask in the vision and then immerse in the detail. Racers will never run a four minute mile by blasting off the starting blocks and running as hard as they can. They have a shot though if they run the track quarter by quarter with goals for each. So in strategy, long term goals require incremental action plans to attain them.
• Spread the ownership. Assign action plans to participants, hopefully volunteers. At follow-up meetings ask team leaders to report progress and results. The vision and the plan need to be shared by all and if results are presented top down, there is a real risk of folks disconnecting from the process.
• Be the first to offer an eraser. Market conditions, competitors and technology all can change at any time—some of nature’s laws on enterprises. No sense staying a course on an action plan if core assumptions have substantially changed. Embrace course correction and help others do the same.
Lesson learned: Strategic planning is a process and not an event. It may take several years to get traction with it, but once successfully launched, it can become yet another cornerstone in an enterprise’s foundation.