If you’re like me, you’ve been thinking about what 2020 will hold and wanting to make the most of the coming year. For a couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking about my career, my consulting business, and the organizations for which I volunteer. More specifically, I’ve been doing some strategic planning. In my work with both business and nonprofit organizations, one thing that I consistently see is a need for better strategic planning. In this post and the next, I’ll share with you the why and how behind strategic planning so that you can use it your benefit.
Strategic planning is the process that organizational leaders use to determine their vision for the future and set long-term (3 – 7 year) goals and objectives for the organization. Typically, the plans are high-level with broad objectives; more specific and short-terms plans are developed under the larger umbrella of the strategic plan. Therefore, everything the organization does is consistent with the highest-level plan. Far too often, business owners and managers have great ideas, a strong set of skills, and even an overall mission, but without taking the time to make a long-term plan, they find themselves making mistakes and missing opportunities. In today’s fast-paced marketplace, it’s hard to take the time to really delve into a strategic plan, but here’s why you should do it and what can happen if you don’t.
Let’s Do All the Things!
Ideation, or the ability to come up with a variety of ideas, is something most managers and entrepreneurs that I work with do really well. I have participated in meeting in which many good ideas are shared, discussed, and embraced with so much enthusiasm that it becomes chaotic. Everyone’s having a great time considering possibilities and opportunities, but it’s easy to lose yourself if the ideation stage without the context of a broader plan.
Having a large number of good ideas can actually be detrimental for the organization if they aren’t vetted to determine how well they fit into the strategic plan. And, too many good ideas may not work together. Organizations have limited time, money, and people to enact a large list of ideas. So, rather than having ideation sessions produce effective action, this time serves to overwhelm and paralyze us with too many viable options.
Strategic planning can harness the results of ideation. When you begin with a smaller range of high-level objectives, the results of brainstorming can be fit into those that should be a current focus or something to be saved for the future. It’s all about alignment--a plan makes prioritizing time and resources more effective by making sure. And, after the plan has been implemented, if new opportunities arise, there’s a context in which to determine if they’re viable or too challenging for the organization to adopt.
I see this particularly in my work in nonprofit organizations, as those involved are often passionate about their work and have many viable ideas. But, when much of the work is volunteer-led, and the budget is small, there have to be limits on things like the number of fundraisers that can be enacted or the amount of outreach that is done. By having the board of directors do strategic planning, there’s an agreement on priorities that makes the group less likely to get distracted and more likely to meet their objectives.
Crisis Management and Ad Hoc Decisions
Without a strategic plan, organizational leaders may only make decisions and take action when they have to, and usually this is when things are going wrong. Once there’s a crisis point, so much energy is devoted to resolving it, that there’s not enough time and effort to prevent the next problem. This can lead to managing from one crisis to the next. Because of the lack of forethought, issues that could have been resolved at an earlier time take on an urgency they shouldn’t have. Without appropriate time to do research or fully consider alternatives, these time-bound, resource-bound decisions are likely to be riskier. Even in situations where there is no time pressure, the absence of a strategic plan can still undermine the effectiveness of decisions. If every decision is made as a one-off, ad hoc choice, this lack of adherence to a plan can mean that organizational actions don’t support one another or that they don’t build on one another to make any difference.
With a strategic plan, so many more of your decisions and actions will not only be focused on meeting the long-term goal, they’ll work together. When I first began working with a running coach to outline a plan to train for a sub-2 hour half marathon, Coach Dylan told me that each run he planned for me throughout the week had a purpose. Much of what I did was preparatory work to set the stage to be able to meet my long term goal; in other words, I addressed some of the internal problems (i.e., my running form) before I tackled more external issues (i.e., pace). Different workouts addressed my aerobic capacity, my endurance, my running efficiency, or even recovery from prior workouts. Yet, each one was directly aimed at the final goal, and none worked against it. This translates to important decisions or actions at work—each one should have a purpose, and that purpose should align with the overall mission of the organization. This is pretty hard to do if you don’t have a good handle on which goals you want to pursue to achieve your mission. As an example, it may seem time consuming and difficult to review and update every employee’s job description, but it makes it easier to hire and retain new employees as the company grows, then this internal work supports the company’s overall strategic plan to grow.
We’re Not on the Same Page
A final piece of having a strategic plan is communicating it to those who will support it. While top managers may have a strong sense of objectives for the next 3 to 7 years, if those aren’t on paper, they probably haven’t been properly communicated. Keeping stakeholders like employees, suppliers, and even customers, informed of your plan can help in a number of ways. And, if you don’t have everyone on the same page, you risk plans going awry.
First, as explained above, by widely disseminating the plan, the people charged with enacting it are more likely to work in alignment. They won’t be distracted by other opportunities that don’t support the long-term goals. Second, when top managers communicate the strategic plan with those who work for them, it can help create engagement and commitment. Looping in employees makes them partners in the plans, and can help generate enthusiasm and motivation for the organization’s efforts. And lower-level employees can watch for opportunities that align with the overall strategic plan. Finally, involving employees can harness the power of their participation. Research indicates that employee participation can lead to better decision making. If upper level managers include those employees on the front lines in planning, their strategic plans will be more feasible.
Too often, I’ve seen leaders forget that their many discussions, planning sessions, and decisions aren’t widely known among employees. They unintentionally leave others out and create a gap that’s hard to bridge. In a prior blog post, I discussed the importance of transparency, and this is critical for properly enacting a strategic plan. In fact, experts in strategic communication emphasize that you need to share information multiple times in multiple ways to be sure that your message is being received.
Do these problems seem familiar to you? Are you seeing some of your own organization’s pain points? If so, check out part two of this post tomorrow—how to do strategic planning—or contact us for help! Kick off the new year by investing in a strategic planning retreat that will pay off for the long term.