When a business person says he or she is preparing for a strategic planning meeting, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Do you think of a group of people excited about improving operations to meet common goals and generating innovative ideas that increase competitiveness in a well-define market? Or do you imagine a forced annual meeting where people give rote answers while sneaking peaks at their text messages and wishing the meeting was over?
When strategic planning becomes a warmed-over attempt to keep the CEO happy, the process is guaranteed to be stale and non-productive. It becomes a duty or obligation rather than an exciting process for generating new ideas. When that happens, it is time to breathe new life into a process meant to keep the organization on track to achieve desired outcomes in the future through better decision-making today.
Getting Everyone on the Same Page
Savvy entrepreneurs hold annual, or more frequent, strategic planning meetings, calling together managers responsible for strategy execution. However, even sole proprietors should strategize. The size of the business isn’t a factor because the intent of strategic planning is applicable to all organizations that want to remain as competitive as possible. The prestigious Balanced Scorecard Institute defines strategic planning as a management activity that sets priorities, focuses the company’s effort, improves operations, and gets everyone on the same page in terms of goals and intended outcomes.
Strategic planning approached correctly should produce new ideas for taking the company forward into a sustainable future. It’s not meant to be a CEO-placating process where last year’s ideas are disguised to look fresh but remain stale. Strategic plans emerging from this kind of meeting are non-motivating rewrites of strategic plans from the past.
Getting Back on the Creative Track
The question is: What can be done to get the process back on track so creativity can flourish once again?
First, participants in the strategic planning process should know that rewrites of old news is not acceptable. Each manager should bring at least one new idea and specifics supporting assumptions underlying the idea. This gives other people something to discuss and debate, and can spark more new ideas.
Second, strategic plan templates must be tossed. Templates have many drawbacks, and one is the fact they encourage people to fill in the blanks to please the boss, rather than inspiring people to seriously think about operational strengths and weaknesses or creative approaches to manage a rapidly changing marketplace. Templates tend to get filled in with rote answers and buzzwords that are intended to impress but have little substance.
Third, strategic planning should cross business functions. Joe from manufacturing, Jane from sourcing and procurement, and Mary from marketing should be planning crosscutting initiatives that embrace operations as a whole. When people show up at the strategy planning meeting, they should be thinking in terms of the broader organization rather than protecting their silos.
Let’s Talk: Holding Real Conversations
Fourth, real conversations must be held about strategy. Showing up at a meeting to present a short-form version of the template is a ho-hum approach that doesn’t impress anyone, including the CEO you want to impress. Ho-hum approaches will not lead to business process optimization, one of the goals of strategic planning. Conversations should consider the link between the company’s mission and current operations, actions that improve competitive positioning and discussions on strategies and not budgets or last year’s operating results.
This is more difficult than it seems because people are most comfortable talking about what happened in the past rather than managing an uncertain future. A unit leader should show up at the strategic planning meeting to talk about plans of action for developing customer solutions or meeting marketplace challenges or taking advantage of new opportunities. It should not be a PowerPoint presentation on last year’s financial results.
Fifth, CEOs or top leaders need to turn the strategy planning meeting over to the participants. This is also easier said than done. Entrepreneurs often consider their business to be their baby, so to speak. They have trouble delegating and often have specific personal ideas on strategy and such. When the strategic planning meeting is convened, it is tempting for the entrepreneur to do most of the talking while pretending input from others is welcomed. What the entrepreneur in this case is more likely accomplishing is the rubber-stamping of his or her ideas. That is not real dialogue.
Holding on to a Vision
Strategy is a response to changing business conditions and a constantly transforming competitive environment. It considers what customers want, the state of the business environment, changing technology, and other factors. It is not about maintaining daily operations; it is about successful strategizing that constantly transforms daily operations in pursuit of meeting desired outcomes. This nuance can be easily missed, and it is up to leadership to understand and nurture innovation in their businesses. Holding on to a vision is not always easy which means developing a visionary strategy is just as difficult.
Connecting current decisions to achieving future strategic goals requires focus, and successful strategies require execution. Focusing on company technical requirements, such as filling out template forms, leads to staleness. Annual strategic planning meetings that fail to energize people into thinking in new ways serve little purpose. A strategic plan is not a creating business plan. The strategic planning process is focused on maintaining a competitive advantage through the generation of value. The strategic plan is not setting unrealistic goals intended to make people “try harder.” It is about execution of business strategies in a way that goals are realistically pursued in alignment with the mission.
If this sounds a bit philosophical to the sole proprietor or the small business, that is understandable. However, every business needs to learn how to avoid getting stale and slipping into rote thinking when it’s time to strategize. Even the entrepreneur operating alone needs to think in terms of long-term competitiveness, execution, and alignment. Some business principles apply across the board.