Secrets of a Strategic Planner

I am a strategic thinker and make a living helping people make strategic decisions that improve future performance. It is a very enjoyable and rewarding career. Admittedly, to most people, what I do is a mystery, hard to explain and even more difficult to do. It is all in what you are used to.

 I can’t repair a computer, fill a cavity in your tooth, or build furniture. What people don’ t understand, they often avoid. Unfortunately, for most businesses, avoiding planning is not wise. Now, more than ever, developing a great plan that guides you to a brighter future is an extremely valuable investment in time, which will generate tremendous ROI.

Here are some things you should know about strategic planning:

  1. How long of a time frame should it cover? For most, 3-5 years. The time horizon should be far enough out that no one can say it can’t be done. In a recent conversation with Mark Emkes, recently retired CEO of Bridgestone Americas, they developed a ten-year plan to allow them to restructure assets including manufacturing facilities. An annual plan isn’t really a strategic plan, but a budget.
  2. What should it include? A strategic plan is a set of choices that determine what you will invest in to meet customer needs and succeed in the market. In many cases, it addresses specific issues faced in the current market place and develops a construct for making similar decisions in the future. Specifically, it will cover the overarching concept that will guide your business, define your target market, determine your advantage, establish your distribution and product mix, identify initiatives that will move your business forward, and align resources accordingly.
  3. Who should be involved? 90% of the time they are developed by the executive or leadership team. It is recommended that information be gathered from everyone the plan will impact, voices external to the company are heard, and those who are critical to successful implementation understand what is expected of them.
  4. What usually derails the plan? Poor implementation is the reason most plans don’t work. Often they sit on the shelf and get dusty. Why? Either a company fails to allocate specific and adequate resources to implement or they fail to communicate adequately.
  5. What ensures a successful outcome?
    1. Working with facts, not opinions
    2. Having a clear decision-making process, so issues can be resolved after a complete debate of options
    3. Knowing what the key questions are to ask
    4. Being able to see beyond what you do today to what you could be doing; remove limits and obstacles
    5. Being reasonably aggressive—don’t dream bigger than you can actually achieve; yet, you do have to think big to be big
    6. Translating strategy into actions, time lines and assignments
    7. Communicating what is expected
  6. Should you hire a strategic planner? It sounds self-serving to say “yes”, but the truth is, if you are not experienced in conducting planning, it may be reflected in the result. Are you skilled enough to repair your car yourself , even if you know what is wrong with it? Would you perform your own surgery? There are over 200 strategic processes (each unique in its purpose) that have been developed. Determining the best process, and assuring breakthrough thinking may take a trained and objective mind.
  7. What should I look for? Not all strategic planners are equal. Many are facilitators, not strategic planners. They can run a meeting but not necessarily help you make good decisions and challenge you to produce your best work. One way to determine this is ask them what processes they use. If it is a “SWOT” or a one-size-fits-all process, not tailored to meet your needs, most likely you will get a partial plan, conducted in a turn-key manner. A planner should be able to give examples of companies in similar challenges, even if in different industries, be familiar with dozens of processes and help you select the ones to integrate into your work that best fit your situation. Strategic planning software often falls short, in my opinion. To work, it has to make assumptions of what the right answer is and can’t consider the intangibles that always matter. It just isn’t possible to program in all the possibilities.
  8.  When should we do our strategic plan? NOW. There is never a perfect time. Most companies like to do it in preparation for budget and forecast development, and Fall is often a popular time. However, if you don’t have a plan, there is no time like the present.

If you have any questions about how to do a plan, or whether your current plan is adequate or even suggestions about processes you have used and liked, I hope you will speak up, chime in and add to the discussion.

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