Embracing the tension in strategic planning

Leaders can drastically increase the impact of their strategic plan by addressing three success factors.

August and September typically mark the beginning of “planning season,” as leaders align goals and budgets for the coming calendar year. A formal strategic planning exercise is often the cornerstone of this annual cycle. However, many CEOs and leaders agree that the strategic planning process typically misses on expectations, can be cumbersome, and typically fails to bring about meaningful change within the organization. Strategic planning done well can have an immediate positive impact on the business and can be relatively straightforward to execute if it focuses on the right objectives.

Here are three  “success factors” – that will help ensure the planning process truly serves as a catalyst for action within the company. The success attributed to a strategic planning process has been driven by the following factors.

Remember that the process of aligning key stakeholders is as important as the final plan:

Common problems we see: Understandably, many organizations believe the ultimate goal of strategic planning is the final written document, complete with goals and actions for the organization to cascade downwards. While we agree no strategic plan is complete without this, leaders should not neglect the importance of the process. A successful strategic plan begins with key stakeholders coming together to build a shared understanding of the organization’s current state, future state, and the steps required to traverse the gap. We often find this is where strategic planning sessions fall short – the failure of key influencers to gain consensus (or at least mutual cooperation) with regards to the specifics of the strategic direction. These are often tension-filled conversations, as the organization’s checks and balances work to navigate various assumptions and opinions – many of which have not been fully surfaced. Embrace this tension as necessary! In most cases a single leader cannot change an organization’s course himself or herself, and must rely on the support and execution of key functional leaders. The process is as important as the final result, because the process should be the forcing mechanism that brings key influencers in an organization into alignment on the thornier specifics of the strategic vision. Doing so will secure the necessary organizational energy and buy-in to drive change.

A solution to consider: Embrace the tension and remember that the process of aligning the organization’s leaders around the specifics is just as important as what the final plan says. This tension can be intentionally “seeded” by ensuring key leaders from all functional groups attend, including service functions like finance and HR. Other leaders who might present an informed yet contrarian view are good to include as well.

If necessary, narrow the focus of the strategic plan and aim for depth on just few topics rather than focusing on breadth. This will allow for deeper conversations on the few initiatives and decisions that matter most.

Your goals and objectives should be supported by clear, actionable projects that can be measured and tracked:

Common problems we see: Customers are usually successful navigating mission/vision/values statements and articulating strategic priorities. From here, most leaders know that high-level priorities should be further decomposed into more bite-sized objectives. However, strategic plans often stop short of identifying the specific projects that will support each strategic priority and are unable to transport the organization to its desired future state. For example, strategic plans typically mention priorities such as “entering new markets” or delivering “excellent customer service”, but then fail to articulate the very actions that, when completed in full, would deliver on the strategy. Long-term strategic goals often change, so driving incremental yet meaningful progress on critical projects is typically what delivers value to the organization.

A solution to consider: Every strategic priority in the plan should ultimately map to specific projects that leaders believe will collectively deliver on the priority. If the action steps aren’t described in enough detail to assign owner(s), dates, and expected outcomes, and aren’t explicit enough to measure progress against, then the plan likely hasn’t gone far enough to drive results. Focus on narrowing the scope of the strategic plan incrementally until each priority can be decomposed in full.

Once the effort to build a strategic plan has been invested, build in the management system to monitor progress and adjust as needed.

Common problems we see: Leaders are often relieved when the planning process is over and are quick to get back to business. The spiral-bound strategic plan is now destined to sit on the shelf while the status-quo persists. True change and progress are elusive because proper thought was not given on how to maintain momentum, translate plan into action, and ensure ongoing accountability. Leaders should make sure there is a basic management system in place to methodically move towards the stated goals and ensure that the expected results are materializing.

A solution to consider: This is easily done in a forum established on a regular cadence, e.g. weekly or monthly, with senior leadership responsible for execution. This strategic forum encourages public displays of commitment and accountability and helps bring leadership attention to project roadblocks so they can be resolved in a timely manner. A simple one-page status slide can help facilitate these conversations.

This type of forum can also help to recalibrate specific priorities over time if business conditions change and establish the type of culture where strategic planning is a continuous activity focused on making deliberate progress – not a time-consuming one-off event. Such agility has become even more relevant in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which surely tested the endurance of a static strategic plan.

A recent customer example: A client in the financial services industry had a priority to ensure its technology platform was up to date with customer’s expectations. However, nothing in the previous strategic plan explained how this would be done or who owned delivery of this. Thus, the organization fell further behind the competition, and the Board was becoming frustrated with the lack of progress. In this case, the client’s leadership first needed to align on priorities, as there were several. Ultimately, this lack of agreement on what initiative to pursue first had prevented progress on any front. With some facilitation, a new mobile banking platform became the primary objective. Then, trackable actions were defined, such as selecting a vendor, conducting sufficient IT and risk management audits, and marketing the product to customers. Finally, we worked with the client to install a robust program management review process to keep the actions on track and the mobile platform project moving forward on a set schedule.

We Can Help

For more information about how Elliott Davis can assist you in making the most of your strategic planning reach our to our Management Consulting Team.

Co-Authors

The information provided in this communication is of a general nature and should not be considered professional advice.  You should not act upon the information provided without obtaining specific professional advice. The information above is subject to change.