Misconceptions About Strategic Planning
John McLaughlin, a planner, has led or contributed to countless strategic plans over a 40-year career. In this article, John shares how to address cynical attitudes towards planning and a few specific challenges with planning methodology.
“There’s no need for strategic planning since we’re already successful.”
Planning is required to maintain success; organizations that don’t adapt to new circumstances risk extinction. Look what happened to Eaton’s – at one time an iconic retail institution. Their leaders failed to adapt to changes in demographics, Canadian shopping habits and competitive market forces.
“We have no time for planning, there’s too much work to do.”
Planning is work. But since it’s outside your day-to-day activities, it’s relegated to low priority. The lumberjack who claims he’s too busy sawing wood to stop and sharpen his saw is inefficient! We all need to spend time and attention to sharpen our respective saws!
“Strategic planning retreats are an excuse for senior management to have a company-paid holiday.”
Holed up in a remote lodge with a dozen or so co-workers for a weekend is not my concept of a holiday. The reason for “retreating” is to get away from the “busy-ness” and distractions of the workplace, our family commitments and thereby engender a complete focus on the future of our organization. Leisure activities that are part of the retreat are designed not just for team bonding, but also recognize the enormous sacrifices management teams make to their organizations, day-in and day-out.
“With today’s rapid pace of change, as soon as our strategic plan is written, it will be out-of date.”
Correct. That’s why any valuable strategic planning process incorporates a regular review and updating, and a complete re-visit every few years. The value lies in having a fluid process that commits your organization to regularly re-evaluating the vision and where appropriate, re-charting the roads to get there.
“The enthusiasm and commitment we thought we had at our strategic planning retreat rapidly waned when we returned to our jobs and reality.”
The root causes to this common pitfall are poor strategy, poor execution or both. Some organizations fail to distinguish strategy from execution. Alternatively, they fail to make the required resource commitments to implement the tactical plans required to execute the strategy. That doesn’t diminish the value of strategic planning if it’s done right.
“How can we ensure that the current assessment or SWOT analysis doesn’t overlook key factors for planning our future?”
To complement the management team’s current assessment, advance research should be undertaken to examine broader, underlying trends and shifts in society (such as demographic and technological changes) to identify forces that you may need to consider. The strategic planning team should review this research before the SWOT is done at the workshop.
“How can we avoid developing another bland vision statement about being the best or placing the customer first?”
There’s nothing stopping you from updating or replacing your vision statement. Whether you’re revising it or starting from scratch, ensure that you have at least one element in the statement that distinguishes you from your competition, especially if you plan to use the statement for marketing purposes. Avoid simply going through the motions of creating a vision statement. Enthusiasm for the process will go a long way towards developing a creative and engaging vision.
“Since only a few, senior staff creates the vision, how do we achieve staff buy-in throughout the organization?”
First, all organizational divisions should be represented and participate in the strategic planning process, including creating the vision statement. Second, adopt a trickle down, rollout process for those representatives to explain the vision statement to all staff – the who, why, when, where and how of its creation. Explaining the intended meanings of the key words in the vision statement in terms of the organization’s culture is crucial. Lastly, during the rollout, explain that it’s not static and ask staff for feedback.
“With limited resources to implementing change in our organization, how do we prioritize changes so we’re confident we’re doing the right things in the right sequence?”
Prioritizing should occur at two levels – strategies and tactics. When prioritizing, estimate not only importance, but also urgency or timeframe of each strategy and tactic. When judging urgency, consider the relationship between actions. For example, if your organization wants to implement a very data-intense tactic, you first need a system that can effectively collect and track the data.
“What tools should we use to implement our priority tactical plans?”
For each priority tactic, use a one-page Tactical Project Plan, and keep these updated as your move along. The plan should include the following at the top:
- Name of tactical project
- Strategies supported (i.e. a tactic can support more than one strategy)
- Objective of tactical project
- Sponsor department and name
Then in a matrix table, outline the following:
- Task/action, in sequence
- Who – will do the action, with specific names
- Estimated person days
- Other resource requirements
- Estimated start and finish date
- Description of any and final deliverables
After this is done for each tactical project, all resource requirements need to be consolidated, for leadership review and resource allocation. From this data you may find that you have insufficient resources to tackle your selected priority projects in year one. This should cause you to revisit your prioritization and you may need to extend dates or defer project start and finish dates.