Strategic Planning Excellence: Defining the End Game

Like most things, strategic planning success varies wildly. Most of us have participated or even led the process but how well it has worked is another question. Given the freshness of the World Series, allow me to compare it to professional baseball. All the teams play the game but by the end of the season there are those who have winning seasons, and those who make it the World Series. It certainly feels good to improve but it rocks to be in the championship.

Most of us do strategic planning expecting to be in the Champions Circle. We strive to see great plays made and new players impact team performance. One of the key differences between MLB teams and many businesses I have worked with is the clarity of the end game.

There isn’t a professional baseball player that doesn’t know the end game—to play in and win the World Series. Every guy is out there trying to do the best he can, be the best he can and give his team a chance. In business, the end game is often not that clear. “Sell more than last year” is probably on most lists but that would be like saying improve your batting average; a good goal but what does it lead to and does it matter how? Companies without an end game may find that they drift–they get attracted to shiny new things and become unfocused. Or they are surprised when the old ways of driving sales don’t work anymore and doing more of what they have always done doesn’t yield the needed performance.

The best way to define the end game is to start with the end in mind. Unfortunately, when most organizations tackle strategic planning, they start with where they are. Then they identify how to improve current programs, practices and operations. That is not strategic planning–that is operational improvement–valuable and necessary but not strategic. In fact, if the business is run that way on an ongoing basis without the benefit of real strategic planning, companies end up spending more on resources for one-off or department-led programs vs. enterprise-wide programs with synergy. It is not unusual for operational programs to battle each other and create internal conflict rather than alignment.

When an organization declares a strategy (the how) and the end game (the goal) as a part of the strategic planning process, they are clearer about what has to be done to achieve the goal, where to invest, how to work together cross-functionally, leveraging projects/programs across the organization, contributing to an accelerated pace. That becomes a strategic plan that is more likely to be effective through implementation.
An example? JFK’s legendary declaration that the U.S. will “send a man to the moon and return him safely to earth”. The mission wasn’t over until the astronaut returned. Engineers knew what to design for, trainers knew how to prepare the astronaut, government knew how much funding was needed and citizens were able to get behind the goal.

Does your organization have a specific definition of success; not just dollars and cents–but a mission to accomplish? Be #1 in the industry? Be a pioneer in product development? Change the way a customer performs a task or uses a product or service? Be best at….. what? Defining the end game aligns the work of the organization to achieve it. There is nothing harder than getting as specific as “put a man on the moon” rather than “explore space” or “launch a manned spacecraft” or “explore a planet to be named later”. Too often that is what strategic plans reveal, the broad generalities without a specific end game. That lacks the clarity and the excitement to make it happen.

Just like MLB players we are professionals–paid for excellence in what we do. We need to hold ourselves to that same high standard and be clear on the strategic end game.

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