Strategic planning is critical to any highly functioning organization. It can serve as a unifying exercise, a roadmap, and a mechanism to re-evaluate or reinforce your organization’s values and direction. While it isn’t easy and takes—among other things—time, focus, organizational discipline, and energy, a deliberate and thoughtfully executed strategic planning effort can help align your organization around a common vision, objectives, and priorities. At Nexight, we also believe that communication, comprehensive stakeholder engagement, momentum, and buy-in are absolutely vital to a robust strategic planning process.
So, What is Strategic Planning Anyway?
Strategic planning. It sounds like one of those overused, consulting buzz phrases, evoking images of boring meetings to review dozens of slides that make your colleagues’ eyes glaze over. Unfortunately, some strategic planning efforts play out this way. But it doesn’t have to be this way; instead, strategic planning can be a compelling, engaging, and impactful process that drives progress and innovation, facilitates team buy-in, and enhances organizational cohesion.
In theory, strategic planning is actually fairly straightforward and simple. It can also take different forms; in fact, you may already be doing it. If you are defining organizational objectives and working to align resources of any type—time, energy, funding, focus—to support the achievement of those objectives, congratulations! You may be the proud owner of a strategic planning process.
Key Techniques for Strengthening Your Strategic Planning Process
Given the broad nature of a typical strategic planning process—shaping the future of an entire organization—it can seem intimidating. But, while these efforts can be complex, you also streamline and smooth out the process by incorporating six specific techniques to sharpen your planning effort.
- Employ active planning
- Engage your team
- Commit fully to the process
- Prioritize resources in alignment with strategic objectives
- Implement your plan promptly
- Periodically re-assess your plan
(Note: We cover the first three tips in this post—check out part 2 of this insight for the remaining three!)
1) Active planning is the key. Embrace the journey.
The use of the word “planning” is intentional and important because the key value of strategic planning goes beyond the plan itself. Dwight Eisenhower once said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” In other words, if you are exclusively focused on the strategic plan—the professional document with a list of objectives and some vague language about your organization and its future—you may be missing some of the point and much of the benefit. An active strategic planning process can help:
- Realign the organization, both bottom up and top down. An ongoing, active strategic dialogue enables organic and iterative development of an organization’s objectives. The result is more clarity and alignment across all layers of the organization.
- Communicate the vision and direction, with emphasis on practical implementation. Detailed planning forces an organization to go deeper, beyond the strategic theory. This provides an incentivize to confirm that proposed tasks meant to achieve priority objectives can be implemented (look for more on this in second post in this series).
- Create a journey for your organization. Strategic planning is all about understanding where you are and what it will take to get to your intended destination. It is an ongoing, living process that is best treated as a journey, during which you learn and adjust as you go.
- Highlight factors (internal and external) that could affect your plan over time. There are a variety of variables that can influence your strategic plan. If you treat the effort as a one-time activity, you risk ignoring internal or external signals that can keep you on track.
2) Engage your people fully. You’ll be glad you did.
A post on strategic planning would be incomplete and inadequate if it didn’t account for one of the most critical elements of your organization: your people, the ones that help drive your organization forward every day. Your team has unique and detailed insights that you cannot afford to overlook or underestimate. Understanding and capturing your team’s insights will greatly improve your process and organizational buy-in. Without them, the implementation of your strategic plan will likely include at the very least some painful bumps and bruises and—worst-case scenario—challenges that grind your process to a halt. There are ways to avoid these challenges that, while not complicated, require organizational discipline and governance.
- Watch out for disconnects and nip them in the bud early. If organizational objectives don’t resonate with middle-level managers, they may feel like observers rather than invested participants. If this happens, your buy-in and implementation will suffer.
- Set up tiers of governance. Just as with other important organizational initiatives, creation of an executive steering committee and working group are essential. Develop a core team that drives the process and engages with all the different groups at each stage. This structure can keep the gears of the process turning smoothly.
- Give everyone the opportunity to engage. Find ways to give everyone in your organization an opportunity to share feedback and questions on the strategic plan: town halls, brown bags, internal email campaigns. The best organizations create an open, inclusive environment that allows people to feel fully involved and invested, which feeds the buy in that is critical to the success of your strategic plan.
3) Commit to the process. Just go all in!
These strategic planning efforts only work if you can dedicate sufficient organizational time and energy to the effort. You need to be “all in” for this to be effective. If you’re not really ready to focus on this work, it may be best to put it aside and wait until you can commit to it. Symptoms of lack of commitment—including ambiguous executive support, unclear guidance, or an irregular process cadence—can be damaging to not only an organization’s collective morale but also its ability to drive towards the future. Some helpful tips to keep in mind:
- First impressions matter. You only get one chance to do this for the first time and send a clear and positive signal to your organization. If you don’t, you’ll probably face skepticism—either to keep the process moving or for a future attempt—that will be hard to overcome.
- The boss sets the tone. If your chief executive and their C-level counterparts are engaged and involved, that will send a signal to your team that they should pay attention, too.
- People are busy. Your team will follow the focus, organization, and priority that they see among your leaders. Find ways to communicate this; plan your process carefully and stick to the schedule.
- Keep up the momentum. Organizational inertia can be tough to change, so keeping the process moving forward is critical. This is especially important for an organization that is new to this type of comprehensive effort.
Next Up: Practical Steps to Refining Your Strategic Planning Efforts
In summary, we’ve addressed in this post how critical it is to ensure that your strategic planning process
- Employs active planning
- Engages all your people
- Enjoys your full focus and commitment
In the part two, we’ll discuss three practical elements of the process that are critical to refining your effort:
- Prioritization of objectives and resources
- Development of an actionable strategic plan
- Periodic assessment of your plan