The importance of intentional and consistent strategic, tactical, and operational planning for any type of for-profit or not-for-profit business cannot be overstated. Indeed, hundreds of books and articles have been written on the subject. First, having a strategic plan prevents an institution from veering “off-mission” to chase those shiny objects or bright ideas of the day. Second, such a plan focuses human and financial resources in more efficient and effective ways to achieve specific and measurable goals. Third, annual planning and annual budgeting go hand-in-hand to promote fiscal responsibility and control. We recently guided a growing business through a strategic planning process, and the positive experience reminded us about some of the lesser-remarked elements that make up the true value of strategic planning.
Strategic planning offers a forum for reflection and creative thinking.
Business owners are incredibly busy. Managing the daily operations of any business takes a lot of time and mental energy. Yet, owners still manage to simultaneously generate ideas for improvements or even bigger ideas for taking the business in a new direction. Taking the time once a year to plan for implementing some of these changes ensures that new or big ideas don’t get forgotten or (by default) relegated to the back burner.
In addition, participating in thoughtfully-constructed planning exercises can help generate creative ideas and bring a specific direction and course of action into greater focus. In the case of our client, we asked them to articulate their past hopes and fears and to reflect on which hopes and fears actually materialized. The exercise surfaced some deeply personal thoughts about issues that had been weighing on their minds, like impostor syndrome and staying true to the cause and mission. We also gave them an opportunity later in the process to reflect on their future hopes and fears, which helped them develop a picture of what success looks like for them.
Strategic planning opens a dialogue between and among staff.
As soon as people have been in their positions long enough to have a clear understanding of their role and how it relates to the overall success of the business, leaders at different levels across the company can and should be included in the strategic planning process. Like business owners, staff have very few opportunities during their busy work weeks to take a step back and reflect on the bigger picture. Offering staff the opportunity for intentional dialogue helps ensure that staff appreciate each others’ issues and challenges and are aligned with the vision/mission.
Inclusion in the process helps staff buy into the strategic planning goals developed. It also ensures that the business owner benefits from the ideas and perspectives of those closest to the work. A skilled facilitator will help create a safe space where all participants feel free to share their feedback. Although some conflicts may arise, business owners can benefit from understanding multiple points of view on an issue. A well-facilitated discussion about different perspectives can lead to new ideas and a more cohesive, stronger alignment for everyone to the agreed-upon end results – whether the discussion is about a work process or the future direction of the company.
Strategic planning provides a roadmap for taking action.
While a strategic planning template or framework is key to developing a strategic plan, the precise template or framework used is less important than the end result–a roadmap for action. The planning process will produce the standard elements of the strategic plan: a manageable number (3-5) of “SMART” company goals, the list of major strategies to accomplish each goal, the list of initiatives (specific actions to take) to accomplish each strategy, and, for each initiative, the metrics and targets by which success will be measured.
Beyond the strategic plan itself, you’ll also want action plans. These turn all of the staff time and resources you devoted to creating the plan into real changes in the organization. Ideas alone don’t change anything! Business leaders should capitalize on the positive energy typically generated by collective planning and establish action plans to create accountability and give people time to get tasks done. Below is a simple action plan template that we used with our client to help them write 25 specific plans of action for Year 1 to ensure that the who, what, when, and how of implementing each strategy is clearly spelled out.