Most organisations will run a strategic planning process; many will do so in September and October as a contribution and context setter for the annual budgeting process. Often perceived as a necessary evil, it may:

–  be a time-consuming process,

–  be expensive,

–  feel like it gets in the way of day to day operations,

–  produce an output document that is similar to the previous one,

–  raise the question of value “Did we get a good return on our investment?”

So, having had the experience of working in number strategy roles, and being in the privileged position of advising organisations on strategy challenges and strategy development, we’ve considered how organisations ensure value is gained from the strategy planning process.

Based on our experience with clients, this article will focus on 3 recommendations to ensure your organisation gains genuine value from its strategic planning process.

This article is not going to discuss the details of a strategy planning framework nor a timetable, however do contact us if you’d like us to review your current approach.

1.  Tailor the planning process so that it suitable and appropriate for the organisation

The planning process needs to be appropriate and tailored to organisation’s needs. Therefore, there needs to be clarity on what the organisation is trying to achieve from the planning process.

The fundamental purpose of strategic planning is to come up with a plan that addresses the strategic decisions that need to be taken now. And these decisions need to be supported by a joined-up set of activities and investments that collectively pull the organisation in the agreed direction.

However, in designing the strategic planning process, there are a number of considerations for the organisation’s leaders.

Where is the organisation today?

For example, we would recommend a different approach to an organisation in a turnaround situation versus an organisation going through consistent, robust growth.

What is the time horizon for the strategic plan?

The norm that we see with our clients is a 5-year horizon. However, the actual timeframe needs to be determined by the needs and ambitions of the organisation. For example, we have discussed the plans of a UK university wanting to develop a Medical School from scratch – the lead time of the idea to taking the first student in is over 5 years.

How well are the leaders of the organisation working together?

We have recently worked with a client where the engagement between the top tier and the second tier of leaders was recognised as an issue. Hence, one of the objectives of the planning process was to improve the engagement and collaboration across the senior team.

What is the optimum level of engagement with stakeholders?

This is trying to ensure the balance between too little and too much engagement. For example, running a mandatory programme involving all members of staff in a large organisation to gain their ideas and suggestions may help with staff engagement, however, may not give a great return on investment.

2.  Invest in the strategic conversations as much as the actual strategic plan

The planning process should facilitate the strategic “conversations” within the organisation. These conversations are as important as the plan itself, as the outcome of these conversations should be informed decision making for the organisation.

What are the “knotty” issues?

The nature of these conversations is not the business-as-usual type discussions, but are housed around the knotty issues, the market challenges, or the CEO dilemmas. These conversations require appropriate investment especially in the preparation – our experience shows that framing the conversations in a relevant and usable way for the organisation takes time, expertise but also a willingness from senior leaders to participate in the process.

What are our hypotheses?

The skill is in framing the questions – as this is simply how problems are defined and addressed. This relies on the use of hypotheses positioned with relevant hard data, fuzzy data, qualitative insight, as well as drawing learnings from organisation’s memory banks.

Will thinking outside of the box help?

There is also an appropriate skill in presenting the relevant stimuli that may help or challenge existing thinking. The future world of “everything Tech” has to be considered – I’m not sure I want an R2-D2 in the house – but when I speak to Whitecap’s Head of Tech, he’ll tell me the robots are coming.

What’s the best way to connect?

These conversations are often cross functional or cross organisation – for example, how to develop a service culture strategy across an organisation. So, these conversations play a positive role in bringing the organisation together around key focus areas. Our experience shows that however cleanly organisational structures map on to organisational strategies, there is a growing need to collaborate cross functionally – so linear or traditional approaches to strategy development need to be flexed to be more networked. This again takes time especially if silos have to be cracked to build the loose networks to address these focus areas.

Why use an impartial facilitator?

Let’s not forget, we’re in the real world so there are politics, egos and personal ambitions at play. Hence, the need for a well thought through process facilitated by someone impartial and objective.

3.  Make the process of evaluating the options decisive.

Strategy is about making choices, often tough choices. For example, we (like many consultants) use the following questions in our strategy discussions with clients.

–  “Where to play?”,

–  “How to win?”,

–  “What capabilities must be in place?” questions in our strategy discussions with clients.

There will be choices associated with all of these questions.

The process of evaluating options must be designed to be decisive in making a choice. Strategic planning is sometimes described as an art rather than a science. However, decision making needs to be as scientific as possible – if it’s not, either the process isn’t appropriate, or the leadership isn’t bought in.

For the process to be decisive, we recommend using a quantitative process. Even where there are qualitative perspectives (e.g. some likelihood of x happening), these have to be translated into a quantitative measure.

What’s the best way to generate evaluation criteria and weightings?

Our recommendation is that this is developed by those in the organisation making the choices and is agreed by this group and by other senior stakeholders (e.g. Board members should provide input on criteria for choices that their Executive will make). It is important that this locked down before any process or options discussions take place.

How is the evaluation process kept pure?

The process relies on no biases or personal agendas coming in. The practical steps that can be taken are around robustness of data used in the options, the agreement of the assumptions, the engagement of key stakeholders, and the use of a strong facilitator. However, we realise that if the CEO has a personal agenda, then this bias is likely to creep in.

Is your process providing genuine value?

The strategic planning process for any organisation is so much more than just writing a plan – the process must provide genuine value for the organisation.

Hopefully you‘ve found this article useful. If you feel that your strategic planning process needs reviewing and would like to have a no obligation discussion, please get in touch with us here.