Leadership Perspectives

How to make strategic planning more meaningful

August 20, 2013

Strategy MeetingDespite what the calendar says, late summer, when kids go back to school, the nights get crisper, and the days get shorter, always feels more like the start of the new year than January 1st does, to me.  Anticipation is in the air as we shake off “summer casual” attitudes and start thinking seriously about professional goals and plans.

Accordingly, late summer is also when business leaders begin to think about strategic planning and budgeting for the following year.

They usually begin by planning backwards from the date the document is due and deciding how many meetings to have, whether an outside facilitator will be used, and who on the team will be responsible for writing what part of the document.

And they hope that the process will be better than it was last year or the year before.

Many leaders, believing that they have devoted generous resources to a process that essentially takes people away from the real work are chronically disappointed with the lackluster results that come from their strategic planning efforts.  

With the same buzz-word laden goals surfacing each year, and certain “unmentionables” not discussed at all, the strategic planning process sometimes feels like a show rather than a meaningful springboard for the forward momentum of the organization.

One problem is that strategic planning is treated like a discrete event that takes place separate from the daily work of the organization.  The other problem is that the process seldom evokes the honest reflection, candid conversation, or innovative thinking that are fundamentally necessary to create a blueprint for meaningful action. 

Do you want a better, more meaningful strategic planning process?

You’ve got to stop treating strategic planning as a separate project to be “managed” once a year.  Instead, you’ve got to design an ongoing process of reflection and dialogue. 

The episodic nature of strategic planning comes very naturally out of the fact that most organizations have a deadline, by which time the plan document must be deemed complete.  This deadline serves the purpose of ensuring that the organization’s leaders put a decisive stake into the ground and commit to a vision and a course of action.

But the completion of a necessary document is but one small part of the overall process. The analysis, reflection, learning, and conversation that feed the document should be an ongoing process.  Formal opportunities to discuss strategy should be conducted on a regular basis – monthly is optimal, quarterly is minimal – to discuss progress on previously identified strategies and to generate and incubate new and innovative ideas. 

Don’t be tempted to rush these meetings or fill them with tactical agenda items and updates.  Make sure everyone knows the topic of discussion ahead of time and is accountable for coming to the meeting prepared to have a meaningful discussion.

All the meetings in the world won’t help if teams won’t discuss what matters.

If the team resists talking about the tough topics that matter, yeses each other to death, or tends to be dominated by one or more members, you’ve got a team culture problem.  To have meaningful discussions, you’ve got to shift the culture. 

Modelling the courage and openness that you want from team members is a great start.  An outside facilitator can also help ensure a more productive process.  In an upcoming post, I’ll talk more about what you can do to create a culture that is conducive to the kind of thinking that fuels strong strategic planning.

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