Strategic Planning – It’s Not an Event!

I can’t tell you the exact number of times I’ve been contacted by well-meaning managers, executive directors and board members asking if I can facilitate their strategic planning retreat but I do know it exceeds the number of fingers and toes I am blessed to have. Early on in my career, I enthusiastically answered in the affirmative to these queries and did my best to motivate and cajole the participants through an action-packed 9-5 agenda with the goal of ending the day with a strategic plan.

While we always did good work in those sessions, important work, the process and the outputs left a lot to be desired. People almost always commented that they “wished we had more time”. Time to dig deeper, to ask and answer more questions, to be more strategic about strategic planning. Not to mention that energy levels and attention spans dipped drastically by mid-afternoon. After all, there’s only so much magic caffeine, chocolate and energizers can work in one day!

Over time I realized that I was inadvertently doing these organizations a disservice by treating their planning process like an event. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither is a meaningful strategic plan. What I came to realize was that people generally didn’t have a good grasp on what strategic planning entailed, often confusing it with operational planning. Simply put,

Strategic planning is a comprehensive process for determining what a business (or organization*) should become and how it can best achieve that goal. ~ Bain & Company  (*my addition in parentheses)

In other words, strategic planning is “Big Picture” or “Legacy” thinking – what will be different in the world because of the work your organization is doing and will do? It focuses on getting clear about your:

  1. Vision & Mission Statements – some organizations may need to develop these while others will focus on affirming and updating them
  2. Values/Guiding Principles – again you are either developing, affirming or updating these to ensure alignment with your vision and mission
  3. Strategic Directions and Goals (5+ years) – what important work needs to be done in the next 5 years to help achieve your vision and better serve your clients?
  4. Key Performance Indicators – how will you know if you are making progress on those strategic goals?

These four components appear straight-forward which is why so many smart people think they can be adequately addressed in a day-long retreat. Most people under-estimate the amount of discussion required to achieve consensus and buy-in, even when the task is ‘simply’ to affirm or update existing materials. They forget the discussion is also about building stronger relationships and deepening trust and understanding between everyone involved and that requires time.

Surprisingly, many smart people also overlook how important gathering and reviewing the right data is for informing discussions and decisions. Let me be candid here: a strategic plan based predominantly on personal opinions, first-hand experience and (possibly inaccurate) assumptions is the antithesis of strategic. And so, after multiple rushed strategic planning events (most with unfinished business), I realized I needed to change my approach.

Now, when I receive an inquiry about facilitating a strategic planning meeting, my response goes something like this:

“Yes I have facilitated one-day strategic planning sessions although clients who choose this option aren’t always happy with the results. [That usually gets their attention]. If you are serious about creating a meaningful strategic plan for your organization, let’s schedule a complimentary consultation to discuss the strategic planning process I prefer to follow and how it will generate a more effective plan for your organization.”

There are lots of models and strategic planning processes out there. I prefer to keep things simple and have adopted the 5-Phase process described in The Road to Success: How to Manage Growth: The Grant Thorton LLP Guide for Entrepreneurs and illustrated below:

Notice the first two phases focus on data gathering and assessments and the third phase emphasizes planning sessions (plural)! Often I execute phases 1 and 2 concurrently and then devote the first strategic planning session to reviewing the results with board and staff members and guiding them in facilitated discussions to grapple with the implications the data has for the future of the organization. Only then, is the group really ready to thoughtfully work on the core elements of their strategic plan. And only then, can I make an informed decision about how many strategic planning retreats a particular organization needs (although the average seems to be three or four).

Not everyone who contacts me is willing to invest the time and resources required to do strategic planning correctly. Those that do, notice the difference and experience for themselves the numerous dividends generated by those investments.

Renowned college basketball coach John Wooden often said, “If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?” This observation is true for so many things in life and it is especially true for strategic planning. Strategic planning is a process, not an event. Make peace with that and take the time to do it right.

What has your experience with strategic planning been? Is it a process or an event? Share your success stories and learning moments in the comments section below.



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