It’s Strategic Planning Season: What’s Your Game Plan?

Changing leaves, picking apples, watching football. Ah, these are the things of fall — and oh yes, don’t forget the dreaded strategic planning process. As certainly as the leaves will change colors in the fall season, so too will companies undergo strategic planning and budgeting.

Most employees think of it as a necessary evil — a time-consuming, closed up in a conference room forever, word-smithing process designed to justify (or rationalize) the numbers that the senior leaders say they must reach to satisfy shareholders. Maybe that’s too harsh, but ask many mid-tier managers and that’s the explanation you’ll hear. For companies that treat it this way, or allow it to be perceived as such, they are missing a powerful opportunity. For those who powerfully engage their team and treat it as a meaningful process, the results can yield a strong, differentiated strategy with the potential for strong execution and sustainable results.

There are many approaches to the process, but the most important thing to remember is to create a strategic plan that is relevant and one that’s well communicated to the team. Without a clear path, how will you set individual accountability, or know if you actually reached your goal? While most organizations take part in this planning process, their approach depends largely on the organization's leadership and the complexity of the environment in which the company plays. No matter the approach, every plan should help define the following.

Your Strategic Planning Process Should Clearly Define:

  • The purpose of the organization (baseline for everything the organization will do and be)
  • Expected goals and objectives in a defined time frame
  • 3-5 strategic initiatives that will fulfill the objectives (and the aligning tactics)
  • Resources required to execute initiatives and tactics
  • Accountability by position type (and even individual)
  • Key metrics that will be measured that define success

The “F” Word

Fall for me in one word is… Football. And just like a coach goes through deep preparation prior to the season, the general manager conducts the preseason strategic planning process. Like a GM in business, a coach determines the overall offensive and defensive approach the team will take all season and how best to defeat the competition. It all comes down to outperforming your competition on the field… every series, every day, every down. The only way to guarantee precise execution is to ensure the team understands, buys into and sees their role in the coaches’ game plan.

Of course, change and challenges are inevitable. While the game plan is set early in the season or game, issues will arise, fumbles will happen and strategies will need to be adjusted. No matter the weather or strength of schedule, a team’s success depends on the proper game plan preparation — accounting for competition and the elements — and putting the best players on the field to execute. The score (profit goals achieved) at the end is the ultimate gauge of your success.

A Sustainable Business Requires a Sustainable Planning Process

Why is this considered by many to be such a painful process? Primarily, because most companies seem to start completely over each year, trying to fixate on the market’s newest hot topic or trend. Ironically, most companies do a 3-year strategic plan — but then start the process all over each year, and usually come up with totally different ways to think about the market or strategies to focus on. The process rarely includes reviewing last year’s plan to see if they even achieved the metrics they committed to, or identifying what the upcoming year looks like compared to last year’s forecast.

On the other hand, some change is good. Don’t just use the identical presentation from last year and update the numbers. Just because you’ve followed a plan for the last 3 (or 20) years, doesn’t make it the right thing to do next year. You should always deploy zero-based investment planning. Much has changed with trends, your industry and your competition. Ensure your vision still has relevance and uniqueness to your key audiences, as this is where enhanced profits are found.

Pretty PowerPoints Don’t Equal Profit

Companies say they’re all about accountability, but few actually review the previous year’s strategic plan commitments to see if a manager’s forecast was correct or if individual commitments were met.

Companies should review these and start measuring each manager on their planning and forecasting capabilities. These skills make for a strong GM. Too many employees are promoted because they can make nice PowerPoint slides that come alive in a polished presentation to leadership. But can they envision a strategy and capably enroll a team to own, execute and achieve it? PowerPoint should be eliminated from the strategic planning process, as it is a crutch for many managers.

Every Player Should “Own” the Playbook

Engaging many levels of the organization helps the entire team take ownership of the plan, versus merely being told to execute what senior leaders think should be done. Plans that are rationalized or created mystically by senior leadership and passed down for execution are rarely successful. Just because you demand results (and even incentivize them), doesn’t mean the people responsible will deliver.

Plans created by multiple levels in the organization — especially mid and lower levels where it gets executed — have a dramatically better success rate. It’s a pretty simple philosophy: If your team is intricately involved in crafting the plan, they will feel ownership of it and ultimately more accountability to achieve it.

A well-developed and communicated strategic plan gives a company the best chance to rally the whole team around a common objective. Unfortunately, many companies only share the deep details of the plan with their most senior leaders and not the majority of the team responsible for making it happen on a daily basis. This makes it nearly impossible for everyone to be aware or engaged… so how are they supposed to execute it and ensure strategic alignment? Share your game plan early and often, especially when enhancements need to be made to address the changing market.

Benefits of the Strategic Planning Process

  • Clarifies focus for the organization — creating a common communication platform
  • Creates organizational alignment on priorities
  • Helps managers create incentive requirements
  • Increases productivity, as employees know what’s expected
  • Tells the organization what to stop doing

Think Big. Win Big.

A strategic plan must be realistic based on market conditions and the organization’s capabilities. There is definitely no place in football or business for hockey sticks. Senior leadership should reject any strategic plan that has a hockey stick financial plan. Period. The only exception might be within a business plan for a certain new game-changing technology or product launch — but never in a strategic plan for an entire business. If there is a hockey stick, break it over your knee.

At the same time, many companies want dramatic growth. You can only achieve this by truly redefining your approach to the market. This growth cannot come merely from share gain (because this usually leads to profit loss). Sustainable growth comes from being able to create demand in your current market, which isn’t tied to the organic growth the market gives you already, or that attained by utilizing your core competencies in other sectors.

It’s the leader’s responsibility to stretch the organization’s thoughts on what they truly can achieve. Gap International Consulting group talks about how the key to dramatically increasing your organization’s revenue (i.e. from $75MM to $500MM) is to start thinking of yourself at the larger size — “be” the larger business today. Only when you make decisions as if you were already at this target size can you achieve that type of growth. Otherwise, you make incremental decisions and end up only growing by incremental single digits at best. Make sure your team understands what you are trying to grow the business into and what their part is in that execution. It will excite and engage them if done correctly.

So, as shouts of “Rudy” echo in the stadium, Gatorade showers drench the coaches of winning teams that executed their game plans flawlessly. Victory comes to those who know winning starts long before the season.

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