As a strategy management consultant, I see different organizations having diverse and almost dysfunctional relationships with the concept of a (and their actual) strategic plan. Let me share what I’ve observed from the perspective of the two primary types of clients I work with.
Almost every organization of a certain size in every industry and sector tends to buy into the idea that they should have a strategic plan. Why? Many do it just because it’s the expected thing to do. In other cases, the Board or a funder demands a clear game plan. Many leaders want a plan because they know that getting a little alignment going in their organization will, in the end, translate into the achievement of whatever the desired end result is.
For most leaders, strategic planning time gives their organization the opportunity to survey the landscape and look into the future. The resulting strategic plan tends to be a list of projects to be completed and goals to be achieved over the next few years. Once it’s created the strategic plan is executed faithfully (or as faithfully as possible!). Planned projects are completed and, if all goes well, the strategic plan is considered “done” (and successful) if all the activities and projects it outlines are completed as planned.
Start Ups/Small Enterprises
Many entrepreneurs and small business owners on the other hand tend to question the need for their company to have a strategic plan at all. In addition to feeling that, as a one person show or very small enterprise, a documented strategic plan seems like unnecessary overkill, their primary concern is that a set strategic plan will only slow them down. Particularly in a world where the future seems to change constantly, and when the business ethos centers on the concept of test – refine/pivot - rinse and repeat, a strategic plan can feel like a straightjacket to entrepreneurs and small business owners.
When I look at both groups of clients, I notice an interesting thing. The big guys often fall into the trap of blindly completing the plan regardless of whether it continues to be the right thing to do while the small agility-seeking guys avoid the plan just so they themselves don’t fall into this trap.
The bottom line? Both groups seem to be under the belief that the proper use of a strategic plan by a company is to, once it has been created, execute the thing as written come hell or high water.
In other words, they believe that to create a strategic plan is also an unspoken agreement to be handcuffed by, and beholden to, the plan!
Realizing this assumption has been a real epiphany for me. However, I think that, there are really two problems going on here. The first relates to what leaders and owners think a strategic plan is and should do, while the other relates to how organizations use their strategic plan. Let’s take a closer look.
1 What a strategic plan should be and include
If you examine strategic plans in most organizations right now, they look more like short-term operational plans to me. They usually include the mission and vision statements and a mention of the organization’s core values. Then, after outlining the findings from a SWOT Analysis exercise, they present 5 or 6 “strategic directions” or priorities for the upcoming planning period and then detail the objectives, goals, and projects the organization intends to achieve/complete over the planning period to support the strategic directions.
Three years in the future, after this planning period is done, a new strategic plan will be created in response to the results of the latest SWOT Analysis. It isn’t unusual for there to be very little consistency between the current strategic plan and the future one. As a result, each strategic plan acts almost like a self-contained plan.
What’s missing from this type of strategic plan is the identification of the business model and strategic choices that support the achievement of the company’s mission and vision in a way that’s aligned with the organization’s core values.
The business model is the critical bridge between the mission and vision and planned projects etc. that’s missing from traditional strategic plans today. The business model also acts as the thread of consistency linking an organization’s strategic plans over time.
Putting the business model into action and then testing whether it is the correct business model (i.e. it’s producing desired results) should be an organization’s strategic plan – FULL STOP.
With this in mind then, a better strategic plan outlines the mission, vision, values, value proposition, business model, desired performance results and outcomes, and proposed key projects required to put the business model into action. Each strategic planning period, an organization may choose to focus MORE on some parts of the business model but not to the exclusion of other parts of the model. Doing otherwise hobbles an organization’s ability to test whether the business model is producing the desired results.
2 How a strategic plan should be used
As I mentioned earlier, most organizations tend to use the project list in their strategic plan as a big “to do” list. Some are better than others at executing the plan/completing the project list. In my experience, the one’s that fall behind in completing the established projects, tend to hide the strategic plan – as if it’s a reminder of what they thought they’d do but have failed to get done.
Other organizations tend to complete all the projects on their list blindly in the belief that getting them done automatically equates with moving their strategy forward. In many cases, these organizations continue working on planned projects even when a change in the business environment takes place that renders the project irrelevant. With project completion being their primary measure of whether the plan has been successful, it’s no wonder that many organizations make completing defined projects a high priority.
However, a strategic plan should be used in a far different way. Putting your business model into action and then testing whether it is in fact the correct business model is your only objective once the plan has been created. Projects that you believe are required to put the business model into action should be started however every quarter there should be a pause in the action to stop and reflect.
At this time, results should be reviewed and three questions should be asked and answered: (1) Are we executing the plan as planned? (i.e. Are we putting the business model into action effectively?); (2) Are we getting the results and outcomes we expect? (i.e. Is this the right business model?); and (3) Has anything changed with our customers and/or the business environment? (i.e. Has anything new happened that might cause us to change our business model and/or our test plan?).
If the answers to any of these questions indicate that a change is required then “the plan” should be adjusted accordingly. This includes changing the business model, re-prioritizing planned projects, and/or developing and implementing new activities and projects.
Organizations that take this more dynamic approach with their strategic plan and its execution often find that, by the end of the planning period, their business model has been refined, their priorities and projects have changed, and their business results exceed those achieved using the traditional approach to strategic plan utilization.
To achieve the kind of business performance and results organizations and business leaders want it is critical that they avoid becoming a victim of their strategic plan. The answer isn’t to avoid strategic planning/”the plan” completely – not having a strategic plan puts a company at unnecessary risk.
The key to avoiding becoming handcuffed by the plan is to change your definition of, and relationship with, the plan. If you re-orient your thinking to make your strategic plan the outline of your business model and how you intend to put it into action, and then focus strategy execution on testing and refining the plan, your strategic plan becomes a key tool that enables you to create the best business to deliver the results you want.
As soon as you look at strategic planning in this new, more dynamic and flexible way, it becomes natural to change the plan as needed – it’s just part of a test and improve cycle. Once you make this shift you’ll find that your strategic plan becomes a powerful tool that works for you rather than an overbearing taskmaster that handcuffs you and limits the success potential of your business.