Thinking Strategically First Makes Strategic Planning Work

Strategic planning for organizations is not considered fun. Strategic planning is often done under duress because it is required. Strategic planning is important yet many such plans are found on bookcases, not on the desktops being used.
Done well, a strategic plan provides a useful focus that energizes and moves the organization toward its mission goals, plus it provides a document to recruit others to the mission. In short, a strategic plan is a valuable guide to focus time, talent, and resources in running a successful enterprise.

A Better Way to Accomplish Strategic Planning

How do we plan vacations? We read travel brochures and magazines to imagine fun places to visit. We invest energy in the process in planning a vacation. Where’s the energy in strategic planning? The creative step that envisions possibilities and generates energy is generally missing. To think before planning is a logical one, yet most strategic planning processes devote insufficient think time prior to planning. The desire to get a strategic plan completed quickly relegates thinking to filling in blanks on work sheets.

Instead, when key stakeholders are invited to a creative thinking step, it engages and energizes all participants. This is where new ideas are generated, where innovative possibilities are visualized, and where the stage is set for implementation success. The more stakeholders are involved in the thinking and exploration, the more emotional and intellectual energy they have invested, and the higher the probability that implementation will occur successfully.

Strategic Thinking and Exploration

A strategic plan should not be solely an incremental list of current activities, but have at least a 20% ‘ah ha’ factor of new ideas. Otherwise, a linear, incremental plan will do little more than maintain the status quo, like treading water. With this premise, the pre-strategic planning stages need to include creative and innovative thinking. This stage should be one of exploring possibilities without constraint, a stimulating and enjoyable part of planning. Thus, think new ideas, explore them, and align them with the purpose of the organization.
Think: Questions at this first stage of strategic thinking should be expansive, akin to brainstorming ideas, yet focused around the following: Where is the industry or business heading? What do customers want or need next year and beyond? Using creative thinking methods, the team should consider all manner of ideas, including crazy ones.
Here is one sequence of questions to ask:
  1. What are the trends in the industry or business sector?
  2. Given the trends, what are three new ideas you can add to your best product/services?
  3. Given the trends, what products or services should you change or eliminate?
  4. Given the trends, what new products or services should you consider?
Explore: For each set of ideas, expand them and explore their potential to position your organization at a new plateau of success. During this stage, it is important to avoid discussing the feasibility or cost of an idea. Continue the brainstorming mode. Constraints will be considered in the planning stage.
Here are some questions for exploring ideas:
  1. What criteria should you use to decide a good from a great idea?
  2. If implemented, which ideas will distinguish yours from other businesses?
  3. If you take action on any specific idea, what will be the impact (both positive and negative) for taking action? What if no action is taken? Any impact?
  4. What could add at least 20% more value to one’s current products and services? The 20% is somewhat arbitrary. Pick a number. How much change is expected in the business environment the next 12 months? The goal is to continue to grow to at least keep up with the shifting competitive environment.

Strategic Planning: The Tactical Segment

Thinking and exploration might be considered the strategic segment while the planning stage is the tactical segment. During the planning stage the realities of funding and resource constraints are brought to bear in selecting the best ideas for the plan. It is here that decision making tools, based on desired criteria, are used to select options for the final strategic plan.
For example, criteria can be:
  • cost to set up,
  • time required to complete the new service offering,
  • fit with current products and services, and
  • potential for growth and profitability.
In planning, the traditional steps come into play, to include analyzing strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT), competition, and available resources. These latter aspects further guide the decision making, providing a different set of constraints. Note that many of the opportunities in the SWOT will have been considered in the think and explore stage. Here are some questions for this stage:
  1. Which of the ideas fit your mission immediately, short term, and long term?
  2. What are the time, talent, and resource requirements for the ideas?
  3. Which of the ideas have the highest return-on-investment once implemented?
  4. What does one have to do to implement the plan, as it pertains to people, skills, technology, and funds?

Final Useful Thoughts About Strategic Planning and Strategic Plans

Consider three interlocking rings of who you are (strengths and weaknesses), what the customer wants (opportunities and threats), and what you stand for (purpose and mission). The central intersection created by these three rings will reveal the unique opportunities that only your circumstance can offer. This distinctive intersection might be called your fit, where no other organization has the same conditions.
Don’t lose this potential to differentiate from the competition. In reality, strategic planning is a means to find your unique fit. If you consider a strategic plan merely a working guide, and not a formal document for presentation requiring perfected details, then there is a higher probability for successful implementation.