10 ways to improve strategic planning

These 10 tips will give business leaders strategic planning tools to set the direction for their firm’s success.

By Jane Sidebottom July 11, 2014

Through promotion or a new job assignment, most business leaders at some point in their career will hear these words: “Congratulations, you are now responsible for strategic planning.” While the need for strategic planning knowledge may be driven by career advancement or necessity, business leaders are looking for the strategic planning tools to help set the direction for their company’s success. They are trying to understand the “new market normal” and position the firm for opportunities that come with a stronger market.

Unfortunately, very few technical educational paths prepare business leaders to intuitively implement a sound business development program. Go online, and you will find thousands of links on how to build a strategic plan, or why strategic planning is good for your organization. However, resources to help business leaders select and staff a strong strategic planning team are very limited. And in our industry, the staffing can be particularly challenging, as the best and brightest are often the most billable. Taking these individuals off the street even for a day or two can negatively affect profits. So how do you assemble the right people in the most efficient way to drive a successful strategic planning process?

Here is a quick primer:

  1. Select a cross-functional team with a mix of high-level and tactical thinkers. Include a few high-performing or younger staff members to push the envelope and to absorb the development opportunity that comes from the process

  2. Consider the following options for the actual session:

    • A 1- to 2-day immersion session away from office distractions. The team then works on the tactical implementation after the session. You will need to closely track post-planning implementation to maintain momentum. Periodic status or progress meetings during the tactical implementation stage will help ensure success.

    • Multiple 1-day sessions spread out over several months with pre-work in between. This approach can often be more efficient as it drives a more focused planning session with tactical plans being assembled and reviewed throughout the process. In between, the leader can monitor progress and individual contributions, and make changes/personnel substitutions to ensure forward movement.

  1. Structure the planning session(s) to reflect your desired contribution level: If you choose to be the facilitator, create a well-defined agenda to manage your time. If you want to participate in the discussion, consider a third-party, unbiased facilitator to lead the session. There is no right or wrong way to do this—just keep in mind it is very difficult to do both well. If you are uncomfortable handling strong personalities on the planning team, then choosing a facilitator is the best option.

  2. Use your company’s core project management skills to maintain the momentum and schedule, and to drive completion. Target your annual budgeting process to drive alignment and implementation of your key strategic initiatives.

  3. Monitor momentum and commitment through periodic updates. If a key team member is falling behind due to workload, then consider assigning a less-experienced, high-potential employee to help with the work associated with the strategic planning process. Identifying the goal of the planning process and the schedule will ensure the most successful outcome. I can hear your reaction now: This is what we do for a living! I could not agree more. Applying the same project/program management used for your client’s projects to your own planning process will significantly improve the odds that you have a productive planning process. Many companies I have worked with use their annual operating plan preparation as the deadline. This ensures that the strategic plan and the annual budgeting and priorities planning for the next fiscal year are aligned. As you move through the process, continue to monitor the momentum and commitment level of the team. If one of your key team members is falling behind due to pressing day-to-day responsibilities, then look for ways to keep things on track. One approach that I have seen as very successful is to assign a less-experienced high potential to help with the work load associated with the strategic planning process. This allows the key team member to delegate some of his/her responsibilities while at the same time allow the leadership team to gage the strategic agility of that high-potential individual. One of the most successful planning processes I have seen actually had a high-potential individual assigned to each key team member for the pre-work.

  4. Incorporate the voice of your customers in your planning process. Consider bringing together several customers for a roundtable discussion to share ideas or provide opinions on your strategic direction ideas. Measuring the planning team’s ideas and direction against the views and observations of your customers is critical to maintaining practical perspective through the process and stretching the team’s thinking. Some of the most interesting planning drivers have come from involving key customers in the planning process. Consider bringing them in for lunch or dinner and holding a Q&A session around your strategic direction ideas.

  1. Update your SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis and competitor analysis. Consider assigning each planning team member a competitor to analyze as pre-work. A standard template can be used to help guide the analysis, collect consistent data, and document anecdotal information across competitors.

  2. Develop a strategic staffing plan. This is often overlooked but can be critical to driving successful plan implementation. As staffing can be a sensitive subject, consider assembling a smaller trusted working group to put this together. One of the most overlooked elements to planning, in my experience, is the development of a strategic staffing plan. This should be included in your roadmap as it identifies critical skillsets and staff positions needed to successfully execute your plan. We have all experienced the challenges of identifying and retaining talented individuals to fill positions in our companies. To exclude this staffing element could jeopardize your implementation timeline. In addition, it should address succession planning and leadership development tracks for key staff. I do not recommend that this element is done with the entire team, but with a smaller working group who can be trusted with the confidential elements of the plan details.

  1. Draft a set of talking points that you and your team can use to communicate progress and direction. Create a feedback loop where the general staff can share ideas and feel part of the process.

  2. Measure and track implementation throughout your executive timeline. Review the strategic plan often and use it to gauge new opportunities against strategic initiatives to keep your company on track. After all, your strategic plan is your roadmap.

Developing an efficient and effective planning process that suits the nature of your company does not have to be daunting. The key is to identify the right team members and process that will drive success. This primer should get you off to a great start.

Jane Sidebottom is the owner of AMK LLC, a management and marketing consulting firm that provides market development and growth expertise to small- and medium-size firms. She has more than 20 years of management and leadership experience in both consulting engineering and Fortune 100 organizations. Sidebottom is a graduate of the University of Maryland.