Many companies have stories of strategic planning taking months to complete, never getting completed or completing the plan but never implementing it.
Sometimes the owner assumes everyone understands the plan and the “general direction.” Having a written plan with actions and metrics gets everyone engaged with the plan.
It can be frustrating for employees to spend the time creating a plan if it is never implemented and nothing changes. Research shows this is a common complaint about a company’s leadership.
The chief benefit of creating a strategic plan is developing a culture of having strategic conversations with the leadership team to make decisions and changes in the company. The competitors, customers, industry and business environment are constantly changing. As changes occur, a company needs to determine if or how to react. Just having the conversation is not enough. The plan needs action, with a timeline and accountability.
Assess the situation
The company needs to spend adequate time pulling together internal information to assess the current situation as well as information about changes in the industry, competitive landscape and other elements of the environment that might impact the future. The best strategic plans have an external facilitator, such as a consultant, who leads the discussion. An outside perspective is valuable to help guide the conversation and look at things from an objective external vantage point.
Involve the team
Strategic planning does not need to take a long time, but does need to have the management team involved. Multiple inputs are needed. The controller sees things differently than the marketing manager. A healthy discussion needs to occur that will allow the group to discuss and wrestle with the direction of the company. There is value in each of the perspectives.
A company may complete an initial strategic plan, but the conversations need to continue in the company. Think of planning as a continual process. Planning is not just an annual event. It is ongoing with regular check points to measure progress toward goals.
A facilitator will help walk through the development of the vision, mission and completing a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats). The SWOT will help identify issues and potential areas where the company can grow or improve. The challenge is to identify the right areas that will provide the greatest impact.
The next step is the actual planning. This should include creating objectives, determining initiatives to accomplish the objectives, defining metrics and developing an implementation plan. A complete implementation plan is key to achieving the desired results.
The implementation plan needs to include the objective, metrics to measure success, a “champion” to report on progress and monitor the metrics, tasks to be completed and deadlines. This critical step in the planning process helps lay the framework for taking the plan down to tasks where individuals can be held accountable for completing the tasks.
Action and accountability
The final step is the “action.” If the strategic plan is not deployed, it will be a wasted effort. It is very important to begin working on implementation within a week of the plan’s completion. Dedicated meetings and reporting need to be utilized to hold everyone in the company accountable for implementing the objectives and tasks identified in the planning process. The longer the strategic plan “sits” with no activity, the more likely it is to not be used at all. The updates should not take long – anything longer than one hour is too long. The strategic planning follow-up should be focused and the champions should report on the progress and any challenges within a short amount of time.
Companies that utilize strategic planning effectively recognize many advantages. Here are a few:
1. The facilitated discussions help the staff clarify issues and set priorities for the company. Everyone’s voice is heard and they all agree on the next steps.
2. There is a clear vision and direction for the company. Everyone understands the direction and is “on the same page.”
3. As challenges and problems are fixed through the implementation process, employee morale improves. Holding everyone accountable for change helps move the company from talking about what to do, to actually doing it.
4. Using metrics to measure success company-wide establishes a systematic process to measure the company, department and individual performance.
There are many benefits to developing a strategic plan, but according to business owners, the hardest part is simply starting the process. As one owner stated, “Planning gave us a framework to start changing our company and the flexibility to change as we worked on the plan.” The most important part is to get started. Look for resources to assist with the planning process and set aside time to work "on" the business while working "in" the business.