I’ll never forget my first time. I anticipated it with excitement and wonder, but once the curtain had been pulled back, I was shocked and, frankly, disillusioned. I suppose this could be said of several life experiences (mind out of the gutter, please), but I’m referring to my very first time attending a corporate strategic planning session.
I was still green and somewhat unsure of the operations of some of the corporate functions, particularly those that dealt with developing strategy, but I was definitely full of ideas. So when the opportunity presented itself to attend one of these meetings, I jumped at it. The objective was to craft a new mission statement. I remembered an exercise like this in school; countless late nights studying the marketplace and piecing together a SWOT analysis that could make Warren Buffet take notice. What was about to unfold in that conference room, however, was less academic in nature. In fact, it seemed to be more about stroking egos and making people happy than setting forth meaningful, executable plans.
I suppose you can say that experience left me with indelible scars. And since scars are often reminiscent of the injury, in later years when I had more experience and it was my turn to lead the strategic discussion, I changed the approach. In my opinion, a strong strategy must answer the question why for any tactic that is undertaken in a business. If it doesn’t, the plan will likely be nothing more than a list of tasks to be completed, and the organization will be full of doers, not thinkers. Doers who think about what they do and why they do it should be the goal. Only then will innovation spring forth.
Below is my recommendation for creating an environment of accountable, creative thinking where the important things get done quickly. It starts with indentifying the most important strategic pillars which support your reason for being, and assigning measurable, finite tasks which map back to those strategic pillars.
Step One – Build the Pillars
Think not of your daily to-do list; rather think about what your organization should achieve in the next 12 – 18 months. These need to be the really big things that will spell success for your organization. The executive team needs to hold hands and select just a few big achievements on which to focus – ones that will really matter. In my experience, a manageable number is four to six – any more, and it becomes unwieldy. Finally, these points need to be concise so that they all fit on one screen or sheet of paper.
Step Two – Create the Operating Plan
This document brings your strategic pillars to life. Envision something like a project plan with line item tasks (and perhaps sub-tasks) underneath each pillar. This document defines what must get done to realize the strategic vision laid out in the first step, therefore these line items must include verbs. They must include deadlines. And by all means they must include the name of the person responsible for completing the task. I have always created this document in Excel so it can be easily sorted by deadline, or by person (which, incidentally, creates a simple way to generate individual level goals which, by design, naturally tie back to and support the overarching vision and goals.).
Step Three – Live It
There are now two important documents. The one page Strategic Plan should be hanging in every workstation, cubicle and office. The more detailed Operating Plan should be the basis of every status meeting and monthly business review – meetings which will now have structure and purpose. Discussions will pinpoint metrics, progress or roadblocks related to the tasks at hand. These discussions should lead to a universal understanding of why we do what we do every day, and how it relates to the overall plan. If there are hours being spent on tasks that aren’t delineated in the Operating Plan, that’s a discussion point. Either the plan needs to flex to include the tasks, or the tasks need to be scrapped.
This process is how I’ve been able to increase productivity and keep the entire team accountable for completing the right tasks. And while sticking to the process takes a certain amount of discipline, it is ironically that very approach which leads the team to think more broadly about the business because they finally understand how their work fits into the bigger strategic picture.