Strategic planning is a commonly misunderstood concept in the business world. Entrepreneurs and business owners may think they have a strategic plan in place simply because they have goals and a general idea of how to attain them, but it’s so much more than that, and it is a crucial discipline for leadership teams to adopt if they haven’t already. Strategic planning is a way for leaders to step out of the day-to-day activities of running the business in order to focus on long-term strategy and ask themselves, “Are the day-to-day activities aligned with long-term objectives? Why or why not? What adjustments need to be made?” It’s a way to step back and honestly assess performance, priorities and problems so you can be deliberate about course-correcting.
Without strategic planning, decisions can lack direction, and daily tasks often lack purpose. Time and energy are wasted on endeavors that do not align with your company’s mission and vision. Investing the necessary resources in strategic planning upfront can bring peace of mind by providing strategies and skills to help your company reap dividends for years to come.
Most businesses practice strategic planning annually, but the best ones do it more frequently, such as twice a year or even quarterly. When addressed infrequently, strategic discussions can become overwhelming to the business owner. On the other hand, when companies believe they can strategically plan as they go through the year — rather than setting aside specific times to really focus on it — it often ends up being dropped for the sake of seemingly more pressing tasks. That’s why for me, Q4 is always strategic planning season. Making sure it is a seasonal rhythm and knowing when it is coming allows me to dedicate the necessary time, attention and reflection.
As the saying goes, “He who facilitates, doesn’t participate,” so for leadership teams that do this strategic planning internally, at least one member may be at a detriment. In my experience, it can be worth hiring an outside facilitator to lead the sessions so that all leaders have the chance to fully participate. The external facilitator can also bring value as an outsider, asking questions from a different perspective, or playing the part of the voice of the customer or competitor.
I offer two types of strategic planning sessions, one that’s focused entirely on the business and another that focuses on professional development and team building. One of the first things I do at the start of each session is ask the attendees a series of questions to help them evaluate their long-term objectives and current trajectory. Here are four questions every leader and team should ask when setting out to build a strategic plan:
1. Where do we want to be in 3-5 years?
To answer, conduct a SWOT analysis to clearly identify the company’s internal strengths and weaknesses, as well as external opportunities and threats. To develop a long-term strategy, you must know your strengths so you can build a strategy that accentuates them. Don’t know your strengths? Conduct a marketing competitive analysis or customer survey prior to planning sessions to get a clear picture. Companies that guess at their strengths and competitive advantages very often get it wrong because they are too biased. An outsider’s perspective is imperative.
2. Where are we today in relation to these goals?
An honest assessment of your company’s current trajectory toward your objectives is the only way to form an effective strategy to achieve them. Pretending you are further along than you really are will only set the company back in the long run. However, don’t let your team get discouraged if you are nowhere close to reaching your goals. That’s where strategic planning comes in, and the next two questions will guide you as you move forward.
3. What obstacles lie in our path, and how do we go about removing those obstacles?
Often, this means addressing and tackling those internal weaknesses discovered in the SWOT. While this may be the most difficult step in developing a strategic plan, the long-term success of the company is worth the temporary discomfort of candid conversations.
4. How are we going to measure our progress and know when we’ve reached our goal?
This final question is of utmost importance, and something many companies forget to consider. Be very precise and specific with this, not at all general or generic. If you cannot measure progress, you cannot rally people toward the goal.
For example, I once helped develop a strategic plan for a country club in one of Houston’s wealthiest neighborhoods. When the general manager started there, he was determined to change the second-tier perception of the club and create a unique and wonderful family club experience. We set out to define the long-term strategy of how to do that, identifying multiple objectives and initiatives, owners for each initiative, and the steps and phases involved with each. When it came time to decide how we would measure success, the GM said it was simple: “When we have a waiting list.” At the time, anyone could walk in, take a tour and immediately write a check and become a member. When they reached capacity and finally had a waiting list, they knew they had succeeded in improving the member experience. The day that waiting list was created, two years later, was a day that was celebrated by everyone on the team!
For many executives, the idea of formulating and implementing a strategic plan is intimidating, but if you carve out the time to ask these tough questions and answer them truthfully, I think you will find that strategic planning is well worth it. It can inspire and empower your employees with a clear vision and direction, and it can ensure everyone is rowing the boat in the same direction toward meeting and surpassing your growth goals.