Seven Things to Ask Before You Hire a Strategic Planner

You may be aware 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 and/or process. Let me explain.

It helps to start with what Strategic Planning is not:

  • It is NOT setting objectives –that might be an annual operating plan
  • It is NOT a budget–although a budget should support strategy
  • It is NOT a SWOT analysis–they are over-rated
  • It is NOT a process; when done well, it is the outcome that matters

One page plans and books like The Rockefeller Habits, have their place but you are misled if you feel that by following those 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 achieving the desired outcome
  • Accountability–everyone takes responsibility for their part
So, how do you find someone to help your team accomplish an effective strategic plan? One that is creative yet disciplined and will WORK?

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.
  6. What is the strategic plan time horizon? Because many “strategic planners” are process driven, they have a standard for what they use. Beware that a one year horizon is NOT a strategic plan; it is usually an operating plan tied to budgets. Most plans are 3-5 years, some longer, few shorter. A strategic plan is designed to craft strategy. Good strategy doesn’t change that often so it doesn’t need a short horizon. According to Jim Collins, in Great by Choice, the best companies have had the same overarching strategy for years and even kept the same profit-driving operating principles for decades—it is the implementation that changes. The right question to ask is “how far out do we need to go to NOT say, we can’t do that because….we don’t have the resources, the skills, etc.?” That is the right horizon; the one that allows you to consider many options and select the best. If you have a five year plan you may or may not have five years of initiatives but strategy is a journey more than a destination.
  7. Do you specialize in my industry? This can be a double-edged sword. Those that specialize know the lingo and may know what your competitor is doing.  It provides security that you can’t go too far wrong. It also can limit your opportunities. You are much more likely to get the same guidance as your competitors, to do more of what is popular in the industry, regardless of whether it is the best choice for you. Someone outside your industry may seem like they have a longer learning curve but most good strategists have done this long enough they get up to speed on the relevant issues quickly. In addition, they are the experts in strategy and you are the expert on your business. They will bring you new ideas that are working for other companies regardless of industry. They will help you craft a plan to stand out in your market, not be a “me-too”.  Someone inside your industry can introduce a process but may not break you out of the status quo. Someone not focused only on your industry, if they are good, may have a better chance of doing both. Worth thinking about.

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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