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How to Prepare a USEFUL Strategic Plan

Does this sound familiar?:-

It is about 5 years since your company did its last strategic plan, and you, or your Board have been reminded that it is good governance to renew it. You can’t actually see a reason to do it in practical terms – the economy has been what it is and the business has been doing what it can. After all, was your last prediction of the future any good?

Nevertheless you decide to do it. You hire a facilitator and ask for a quote. When the facilitator (if they are worth the money) asks for preparation time that may include research into your industry and company, along with interviews with stakeholders, and prices her quote accordingly. You receive the quote and negotiate it downwards, removing these “extraneous” tasks and leaving the task of facilitating a day’s workshop and writing it up.

You organise a day’s retreat for the Board and senior staff. You hold the meeting, everyone has a good time away from the office, you all contribute to discussion and feel satisfied that you have thrashed the issues. The facilitator writes up the plan, you review it and “implement” it.

In a few months, the exercise is forgotten.

Familiar?

Stop being embarrassed. Most small organisations do this, whether they are commercial businesses or Not-for-profits. Most Boards allow this to happen.

The question is what should you do to get a cost-effective and productive outcome?

The first thing is to recognise the value of a strategic plan, and the second is to recognise the mistakes you have been making in the past.

If you run any organisation, you need a strategic plan. A strategic plan is not a business plan. A strategic plan sets out where you want to go over a “longish” period – the “where” more than the “how” of getting there. With a strategic plan your business or NFP identifies what really matters, how “success’ is measured, where the barriers lie, and how to jump hurdles. With the identification of a strategic direction, you can better prepare shorter-term operational or business plans that detail the resources, month by month targets, and budgets, that you need in order to follow the longer-term goals.

As for the past mistakes that have made your past strategic plans unremarkable and easily forgotten:-

1. The Board is given an impossibly short time to think deeply about deep underlying issues. These are not the issues to be easily identified in the hour set aside for “SWOT Analysis” and certainly not issues where the next hour set aside for “Strategies” can provide meaningful answers.

2. The facilitator is restricted to running the day’s meeting. While (theoretically) an expert, the facilitator does not know your business and often not even your industry. Restricting, through cost-saving, their ability to deep-dive into your individual circumstances means that they cannot use their expertise to ask you challenging questions that they have identified with proper research, nor provide alternative ideas for consideration from their archive of other people’s solutions.

3. These short strategic planning workshops don’t provide sufficient information to be considered, analysed, and “kicked over” for good decisions to be based on solid ground.

So, once you realise the importance of a good strategic plan and how it can set achievable milestones for the organisation to work towards; and once you have decided not to keep doing the same thing and expecting different results, what should you do?

1. Make a list of all the information you will need to think through and analyse. Don’t start deliberations until you have it all. This list of information will be different for different organisations but they will include things like formal and informal mandates including constitutions and public expectations of your organisation; a critical history of the organisation; financial reports over the last 3 or 4 years; legal structures and commitments or agreements; staff histories; programmes, projects or business unit analysis; deep discussions with stakeholders about the organisation’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Ask yourself, what information do you need to make an informed decision?

2. Schedule sufficient time to conduct the strategic planning exercise. This is not a one, two or even three day workshop. This is “sufficient time” and may mean an extended period of meetings, analysis, reports, and more meetings. The key is to have a guided process in place.

3. The process should include the analysis of the vision and the quantification of success – “when we have achieved the vision, what will we actually look like and how will we behave?” Actively analyse this and agree so that you know where you want to be.

4. The process should analyse the current situation – what are you expected to do? Will this change? What are you doing right? What are you doing wrong? What opportunities and threats exist that you will have to change to meet? The definition of what success means, if detailed enough, and this analysis of the current situation should lead you to a set of Key Strategic Issues that embody what you have to resolve to go from the current situation to the successful vision.

5. Then, and only then should you look at top-level strategies to deal with these Key Strategic Issues. Don’t fall into the trap of one strategy per each goal or Key Strategic Issue. Life is rarely that uncomplicated. Often on implementing one strategy you either only partially deal with an issue, or you deal with several at once. You need to think through the strategies and the repercussions of each, before you understand if they will get you to the end-game.

6. Finally, after work has been done, you have time for blue-sky thinking. With complete information, analysis and discussion you can construct those Big Hairy Audacious Goals. Without the foundations, any of these goals are mere wishes.

There you go. Go work this out, and tell me how you got on. Remember, strategic thinking is not just to be indulged in a day’s meeting; strategic thinking is about being open and enquiring on a day to day basis.

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