The purpose of strategic planning is NOT to create a plan. It is to affect change. All the time, energy, and money invested in strategic planning are wasted if the outcome of the process is not translated into actions that can be taken day-to-day to advance the organization’s strategic priorities.
Unfortunately, I’ve seen too many strategic planning efforts fail to create necessary change. Such failure is usually not the result of creating inappropriate or poorly articulated strategies. No, most strategic planning failures are the result of not translating the lofty outputs of a thought-centric process into actions that can be implemented “on the ground.” Leaving the outcomes of the strategic planning process at too high a level to be actionable is a mistake.
Let’s review the key components of an effective strategic planning process. First, you articulate a desired future state, which represents your dreams and aspirations — where you want the business to be in, say, 3 to 5 years. This desired future state is contrasted with present circumstances, and gaps between where you are and where you want to be are identified. Possible strategies, initiatives, and/or projects are identified that could help you bridge this gap. These possible changes are prioritized and form the basis for 5 to 7 strategic imperatives going forward.
So far so good. But articulating strategic imperatives, with their typically generic descriptive language, is usually not enough to guide future action. For example, in a strategic planning workshop I recently facilitated, one of the strategic imperatives chosen by the leadership team was “Design and implement a new social media sales and marketing strategy.”
A perfectly sound strategic imperative. Unfortunately, if the leadership team leaves the strategy session with just those words in hand, it is not at all clear who must do what to achieve the desired change.
The Precursor to Action Planning
Here’s where the unsung hero of strategic planning comes into play. Before you and your team leave your strategy session, you must identify milestones and key next steps for each of your 5 to 7 chosen strategic imperatives. The idea is to assign overall responsibility for advancing each new initiative to (preferably) one member of the leadership team, who becomes accountable for project success. The group then agrees on milestones, sub-projects, deliverables, etc. that this sponsor agrees will be accomplished as the new initiative proceeds forward.
I use a very simple format for capturing this information. For each of your priorities, identify specific next steps that will drive successful implementation of that change (i.e. “what” must be accomplished). For each of these, an accountable party needs to be identified (maybe the project sponsor, maybe not). Someone needs to be responsible for accomplishing the assigned next step or ensuring that is it is completed. This is the “who” in our action item list. Finally, a deadline or timetable for each action step needs to be established (i.e. “by when”).
Such an action list serves as a framework for each high-level strategy so that progress can be observed and tracked. This framework is the key to implementing your strategic plan and preventing it from becoming just one more 3-ring binder on your shelf.
Food for Thought
It’s tempting at the end of a long strategic planning session to try and wrap things up quickly and to say to your team something like “we’ll put meat on these bones when we get back to the office.” Don’t do it! One of the great benefits of dedicating time to a thought-centric activity like strategic planning is that it gives you and your team an opportunity — a rare opportunity — to work ON your business, not IN it. Don’t skip the creation of a framework of milestones and deliverables that will guide timely completion of each of your new strategic initiatives. If you don’t do it now, it’s unlikely to ever get done and your strategic planning investment will be wasted.