Strategic Planning for Businesses: prepare for the future

The most important investment in your business this year!

By: Stephanie T. Ford

Strategic Planning can provide several benefits even for small to mid-size organizations or privately held companies. By defining a clear vision and mission, it can help to put everyone on the same page. I have seen how this can be a unifying and motivating exercise, which helps to foster a good culture and employee retention. It builds engagement and buy-in, which is beneficial in supporting teams to work together towards common goals by creating goals, strategies, and tactics together. Strategic Planning can also be a way to communicate vision internally to motivate existing employees and externally to attract new workers and help coalesce support from potential funders, investors, vendors, and even perhaps new clients.

10 Tips to help get you started:

  1. Begin with the end in mind
  2. Pull together a diverse group of thinkers
  3. Establish a timeline and schedule for meetings
  4. Use an outside facilitator
  5. Encourage open discussions, brainstorming, and debate
  6. Establish the next steps at the end of each meeting
  7. Be realistic with attainable goals and a feasible execution plan
  8. Startin with long-term thinking (5+years); move to short-term planning
  9. Be open to change; strategic plans are fluid and not set in stone
  10. Encourage strategic thinking to be a habit

UNDERSTAND THE PURPOSE OF STRATEGIC PLANNING

What is Strategic Planning?

Strategic Planning is a process in which an organization’s leaders define their vision for the future and identify their organization’s goals and objectives as well as how to achieve them.

At its core, Strategic Planning asks the fundamental questions:

  • Who are we?
  • Where are we now?
  • Where are we going?
  • How do we get there?

How is Strategic Planning different from other planning?

Strategic Planning goes beyond Business Planning which simply defines your customer, value proposition, how products/services are sold, and competition. You may have already done this process when you started your company or needed financing from banks or other early investors.   Or, you may have done some Operational Planning at different points in your company life cycle. Operational Planning is more narrowly focused and outlines specific short-term action plans, capturing tasks, milestones, and what is needed to move the business forward. Examples might be marketing campaigns, systems conversions, product development, or training plans.

What’s the best way to prepare for the planning process?

  • Step 1. Understand what is important to you.

Before embarking on a full strategic planning processthink about what’s important to you in this process and what you are trying to accomplish. For some companies I’ve worked with, the emphasis is on defining culture. For others, it’s about improving business performance. For others, it’s about defining the strategy to change a business model.

  • Step 2. Determine who should be involved.

From there, think about who you want to have involved. We always suggest thinking about all stakeholders first.   This certainly would include your C-suite leaders and an advisory board if you have one. After ensuring key management is involved, you have more latitude on who else should be involved. Consider how broadly you want this process to include all or some of your employees. Do you want to include department heads, team leaders, and other managers? With an eye toward succession, are there some rising stars in your organization that could be included? Are there other owners or family members to include? Beyond that, perhaps outside input would be beneficial as well, particularly in the environmental scan process. Consider key suppliers, customers, or industry players. How about input from investors, funding sources, and other community members?   The groups or people to involve depends on your goals for the process and what you want to accomplish with Strategic Planning.

  • Step 3. Use a third-party facilitator.

Warren Whitney always recommends utilizing an outside facilitator for this process. In our experience, there are many benefits to having a facilitator. First, it allows everyone to participate on equal footing fully. It is hard to both participate fully and lead a process well. And too often, dominant personalities and positions too easily dominate during the process. It’s essential to have diversity in the room regarding positions, personalities, and perspectives; giving everyone equal opportunity to participate, even those less outspoken. A facilitator also plays a vital role in diffusing difficult conversations and helping the participants navigate any particularly challenging or sensitive topics. Additionally, the facilitator plays a key role in the planning and scheduling of the process — making time for meetings and ensuring accountability to the process is critical for success.

DEFINE YOUR MISSION, VISION, & VALUES STATEMENTS

One of the first critical parts of Strategic Planning is defining the mission, vision, and values statement.

We invite companies into a visioning process and ask them to think about the next about the next 5-10-15 years. Don’t be afraid to dream and ask the big questions:

  • Where do we want to go?
  • Who do we want to be?
  • Who is important to us?
  • What does success look like?

Author and leader Jim Collins encourages companies to set their BHAG: Big Hairy Audacious Goal! As described in his book “Built to Last,” this is a long-term goal, with some urgency, stated in a clear and compelling way. The BHAG is different for every organization, industry, and company life cycle, yet it is always meant to energize and inspire. (ie. Recall Microsoft’s original goal to “put a computer on every desk in every home.”)

The Mission Statement

The Mission Statement should simply communicate the purpose of the company answering “who do we serve?” and “what do we do?” It should be clear and to the point and relates to how to reach the vision.

The Vision Statement

The Vision Statement provides insight into future big-picture goals and is a statement that describes “what are the results if we are successful? “It should strive to be succinct, inspirational, and aspirational.

Values Statement

Defining Core Values can be a great process for employee feedback and engagement. It’s about deciding on the key words that describe an organization’s core beliefs that drive behaviors.

To provide one example of good statements, let’s turn to the international LEGO Group founded in 1936 in Denmark, who is making a significant manufacturing facility investment in Virginia now.

Mission Statement: “Inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow.”

Vision Statement: “A global force for learning through play.”

Core Values: “Imagination, creativity, fun, learning, caring, and quality.”

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This graphic outlines the seven vital Strategic Planning elements needed to develop an effective plan.

CONDUCT THE ENVIRONMENTAL SCAN & SWOT

After this process of dreaming big, we always like to ensure that we also insert a dose of reality. What are the realistic constraints of the organization? We make sure that we do not dream in a vacuum but instead look at the financial facts, assets and liabilities, and human capital limitations. This naturally leads to a key part of the process – the environmental scan and SWOT.

Gather internal and external data to ensure decisions are based on facts.

It’s important to spend time gathering data regarding where the organization is now. Your research should include a financial review and operational review. Beyond that, it can also include a competitive analysis as well as other internal and external inputs from employees, customers, or other stakeholders. This can be gathered through surveys, focus groups, listening sessions, or interviews. Again, this is an important place of input for your facilitator to provide guidance on who and how to gather relevant information for the process.

Evaluate your company Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (SWOT).

The SWOT is a classic exercise that continues to have merit for assessing current Strengths and Weakness of the organization as well as external Opportunities and Threats.

Analyze your SWOT results to look for themes and needs.

What are the gaps for focus areas? Define your long-term business goals.   Based on this evaluation, identify 3-5 overarching strategic initiatives/focus areas.

  • Each initiative can have several goals under it – statements of need
  • Then identify the objectives – milestones to reaching the goals with a timeline
  • Develop the Action Plan – specific implementation plans

DEVELOP THE ACTION PLAN

Once you have determined your 3-5 strategic initiatives, designate a workgroup or task force for each. When you decide who should be involved, consider their knowledge, skills, and influence. Each work group will then outline the projects and next steps by developing SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-based) and then creating a timeline. Continue to build out the Action Plan designating accountability by assigning responsibilities and deadlines.

While we find that while the Vision and Mission Statements can last for years or even decades, the Action Plan is focused on a much shorter time frame that is manageable for specific planning – goals and tasks over the next 6-12-18 months. The overall Strategic Plan might have a 3-5 year time horizon, with a “refresh” process in between. 

COMMUNICATE THE PATH FORWARD

Once you’ve created your plan, you must think about how best to share it with your employees.

Write an overview to share with your employees.

We recommend creating a short Executive Summary that provides an overview of your vision and the plan on one page (visuals are often effective here). This can then be supported by a longer Plan Document, which might be several pages long yet easily understood. Your more detailed Implementation Plan – the Action Plan, which might be in spreadsheet form – should be used internally only to manage your work and follow up steps actively. Think about how you can share your new Strategic Plan internally with your employees and externally with your stakeholders and the larger community. It should also further connect with your marketing, communication, and branding plans.

STAY FOCUSED ON THE VALUE OF STRATEGIC PLANNING

While nonprofits (with a board, donors, and funders) and publicly traded organizations (with shareholders and SEC reporting) have strong requirements to complete formal Strategic Planning processes regularly, business owners of privately held companies have much more latitude. Without the requirements to produce annual reports or post public financial results, it is easy to postpone formal planning. Many managers find it challenging to pull away from the demands of their daily business responsibilities to set aside planning time. As such, many business owners suffice to start the year with simple goals around growth (% or $) of revenues, customers, or staffing. However, the best business leaders know there is much value in the hard work of Strategic Planning. And true CEOs aspire to work “on” their business, not “in” their business.

Business owners sometimes hesitate to embark on a Strategic Planning process because either they have been through a process elsewhere before and found it difficult, OR they see the process as a mysterious “black box.” Our goal at Warren Whitney is to have a transparent process in which organizations can fully engage and have tangible results.

Some organizations want to conquer Strategic Planning in a 1-day off-site retreat. While we do recommend getting away to a refreshing new location, our process typically lasts 3-6 months. We find value in the iterative nature of discussing topics with the group, pausing to digest the information, breaking away for reflection on challenging issues and coming back to share and rework any areas needed.

IN CONCLUSION

I enjoy facilitating the Strategic Planning process as the results can be lasting and transformational. Ultimately, our goal is to create a living working document for your team – a roadmap for your company’s future.

Strategic Planning can be hard – even overwhelming and intimidating at times. I hope this article has provided you with some guidance and clarity on the process and encouragement. It’s easy to handle the urgent and put off the important. However, as Voltaire has stated: “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.” Embrace the process, but don’t let it bog you down. As Nike’s tagline says: “Just do it!”

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Stephanie Ford works closely with a variety of businesses and nonprofits in Strategic Planning. When she helps develop a strategic plan, she starts by listening and asking good questions. She leads you and your team through a series of conversations that helps you decide where you want to go. She explores possibilities for your future and figures out what is possible. To learn more about how Warren Whitney can support your strategic planning initiative, email Stephanie Ford at sford@warrenwhitney.com or call her at 804.977.6691.

We do not charge for the initial call. We want to learn more about your business needs.

MAKING POTENTIAL HAPPEN

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