Too many strategic plans look like they were stamped out of some management consulting desktop fabrication lab. Change the organization’s name at the top of the page and you have almost the same plan that hundreds of other organizations have. This kind of perfunctory strategic planning gives the entire process a bad reputation.
But a strategic plan that truly transforms an organization is well worth the effort. Strategic planning that makes a difference has these qualities:
1. A shared vision about where an organization’s passions and capabilities meet future opportunities to lead. Too many organizations launch into strategic planning without understanding either the changes in the external environment or the changes in their internal requirements and capabilities. The typical SWOT analysis rarely gets to the big picture, systemic view that an environmental scan will give organizations. Organizations have to look at this big picture and ask which strategic issues matter so much to them that they simply must take responsibility for leading what happens next. Too few organizations get below the surface of their brand to really understand their values, aspirations and their willingness to learn and adapt. They don’t test the relevance of their identity for a future they want to create. This shared vision must emerge from a rigorous anticipatory learning process that engages as many of the stakeholders as possible in a frank and inclusive dialogue about where they want to take the organization together.
2. Audacious goals that challenge people to do their best and most important work in the world. Most organizations play it safe. They want goals they know they can achieve by the next annual report. Organizations would do better to over-reach in three or four issues or opportunities that are critical to their future than live beneath their potential. They will be farther along in achieving their vision and they are far more likely to entertain innovative or courageous ideas.
3. A strategy that focuses the work and resources of the organization and creates the momentum for change. Too many organizations confuse projects, programs and tasks with strategy. Strategy should define how an organization executes its mission: who it will serve and how. When many organizations can and do offer similar programs and services, organizations choose strategies that differentiate their value to the people they most want to serve. Strategy is how an organization plays to succeed.
4. A real commitment to taking the next steps to make it happen. Most organizations do a good job planning the next steps to support their audacious goals and intermediate goals or objectives. What gets overlooked is having a plan for coordinating and leveraging across the goals. What are those initial first steps to get to early wins and greater organizational buy-in? A transformational strategic plan needs an action plan for leading change. Otherwise, that strategic plan is very likely to end up on the shelf rather than in people’s hearts and day-to-day decisions. The action plan makes sure the organization does everything necessary to align the organization with the new direction.
5. A few high profile signature initiatives that signal the organization’s commitment to the new direction. In far too many strategic planning experiences, most people have a better sense of what they want to do than where they need to go. They skip ahead to their wish list. The right time to turn to thinking about innovating and launching those new programs, services or projects is after the goals are set and the strategy defined. Only then can organizations pick the right bold and high profile projects to attract the energy and enthusiasm for the new direction.
6. A discipline of accountability and adaptability that continues to recalibrate the strategic plan as needed. Boards and executive teams need to have feedback processes that capture what the organization is learning and meaningful metrics that monitor progress. They have to understand that conditions will change. They will need periodic strategic conversations to adapt their strategies and initiatives to reflect this new reality.
Strategic planning that has these six attributes will definitely shake up any organization and put it well on the path to transformation and extraordinary success. This kind of strategic planning becomes a powerful process for expressing the aspirations and potential of the people in any organization. The plan simply becomes their declaration of intent for their future.