Five Things to Ask Before You Hire a Strategic Planner

Many of you know that while I help companies do strategic planning, I really don’t like to use the term, “strategic planning”. Seems odd, doesn’t it? The reason is that far too many people are in the strategic planning business and, in  my humble opinion, it is confused with meeting facilitation. Let me explain.

It helps to start with what Strategic Planning is  not:

  1. It is NOT setting objectives –that might be an annual operating plan
  2. It is NOT a budget–although a budget should support strategy
  3. It is NOT a SWOT analysis–they are over-rated
  4. It is NOT a process when done well–it is the outcome of the work

One page plans and books like The Rockefeller Habits have their place but you are misled if you feel that by following these steps you have a strategic plan. One page plans are rarely more than a tweak to what you already do and “the Habits” focus on implementation–not strategy.

Let’s start talking about strategic thinking rather than planning. The purpose of a plan is only to capture the valuable strategic thinking (and decisions) in a manner that provides focus –everyone understands what to spend time on and what not to do, clarity-everyone understands their role in achiving the desired outcome, and accountability–everyone takes responsibility for their part.

So, how do you find someone who really knows what they are doing? Ask these questions:

  1. What is your experience? If they have never run a business themselves, question if they understand the challenges inherent in strategic alternatives and how to align the tasks critical to implementation.
  2. What is your process? There are two scary answers. First, if they use SWOT, beware. That technique is simple so many people use it without real knowledge of strategic planning. Often people who use this may be experienced meeting facilitators rather than strategists. Secondly, if their process is one size fits all, and they can explain it without asking many questions about your business, chances are that is all they know how to do. They are trained to deliver the process  regardless of the quality of the work achieved in each step.
  3. How many of your clients do you work with more than once? It would be easy to say that since strategic planning is a long term view, it is rare to work with clients more than once. To some extent that is true, yet I have found that if clients get benefit it is not unusual for them to seek additional help in implementation or future work. If the prospective provider has been in business at least three years, find out how many clients have come back for help with the second plan, or met the planning objectives established in the first plan. In other words, were the plans helpful and effective?
  4. Do you do one day strategic planning? Just as one page templates aren’t really plans, one day planning sessions don’t yield a quality strategic plan. They can be used to tackle a key issue or two. If a strategist agrees to facilitate a one day strategic planning meeting, and doesn’t insist on additional steps, they are a facilitator–not a strategist.
  5. What happens after we have the strategy? Most plans are considered complete once the strategy is defined. That is why most plans fail. Strategy defines what you will do but to make it happen you have to define the “how”. You may all agree to penetrate a new market segment, but it won’t happen if you don’t decide how you are going to do that, evaluate the impact on resources, assign accountability and then follow up. In our work, we include developing the “how” along with implementation tracking tools as part of the plan itself.

If you have any questions about how to screen a potential strategist to work with your firm, please let me know. It is important to me that anyone who has a “strategic plan” really has a good one!

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