A strategic plan is an organization's roadmap that leads to the future. There are many professionals who call strategic planning long-term planning. Others call it brainstorming for solutions to problems or obstacles the organization is facing. And do not forget leadership who believe they are in a battle against their competitors – a.k.a. -- they think they are business military special forces – they hold tactical planning meetings. Long-term, brainstorming, and tactical planning are not strategic planning.
Strategic planning is more than a blue print to help an organization reach their desired goals, it's an action plan to guide the organization into the future. It's an in-depth interview using basic investigative journalistic skills of news writing. A reporter knows he has everything to write a news story when he has answered the questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how. Those are the questions that must be answered in strategic planning.
But strategic planning is different than long-term planning because it's backwards. Strategic planning is done in reverse, which makes it a stronger and better plan. Long-term planning starts with "X" marks the spot -- indicating where the organization is now and then says our goal is to get here, and the planning leader places another "X" on the other side of the chart. The people in the meeting then list the various steps they think will be needed to get to the next "X." Say a football coach used long-term planning. He literally would have to wait until his team had the ball before he could lay out a plan – and it only would be for that possession of the ball. He could not plan a way for his team to win the game because long-term planning starts where an organization is at that moment in time. That coach would not have a job for very long.
Strategic planning is not brainstorming although brainstorming could be used in strategic planning. Brainstorming is taking a specific problem and then writing down every idea that is mentioned to solve said problem. The next step is to weigh the merits of each idea until the best idea is found to solve the problem. Strategic planning is broader and looks at the big picture and not only one stone that must be removed along the path.
A tactical plan looks at a predetermined objective and lays out a plan of attack to meet that objective. This type of plan also could be used in steps to meet goals in a strategic plan.
Okay, so now that you know what strategic planning is not, it is now time to look at what strategic planning is and how it is important for an organization's future. But first, let's seek a definition for a strategic plan, which will help define strategic planning.
Strategic Planning Defined
At the beginning of this article it was said that a strategic plan is a roadmap that leads to the future. That is true. But it's more. It's a tool leadership can use to ensure everyone in the organization is focusing their energy on the same goals. Let's look at the football game analogy again. If the coach did not have a strategic plan in place, but used brainstorming or long-term planning, then the offense would be on one plan to achieve one short-term goal while the rest of the team would be using different strategies. The team as a whole would have absolutely zero goals to win the game, much less future games. The coach does not have a team looking to the future, which is to win this game, the next game, and to ultimately win the championship.
A strategic plan also is a guide book for the team. It outlines steps and processes the team members are to use to reach specific goals along the way that ultimately leads to the farthermost goal in the future. It is an intrinsically detailed plan that outlines where an organization is at that minute, where it will be next year, five years down the road, and ultimately 25 or 30 years into the future. And because of its intrinsic details, it states the steps needed to get there.
Let's see how the coach would plan using a strategic plan strategy. He would tell the team we are going to win the championship. To do this we need to keep everyone healthy and win games. The steps to accomplish this goal would then be to have the team in top physical shape at the end of the season going into the championship game. To accomplish this, the organization needs to have one of the best conditioning coaches on the team to outline the steps for each individual player.
The coach would then look at the team's schedule. Each team would be scrutinized and their strengths and weaknesses would be measured against his team's strengths and weaknesses. From this assessment he would outline a game plan to win each and every game.
That is planning in reverse. The coach started with the ultimate goal of winning the championship game and then outlined the plan in reverse order until he was in training camp. And that is how strategic planning takes place – in reverse order. The organization's leader looks at the overall big picture – his organization and its talents and desires; the world around him and its status; and he looks at any competition and weighs their prowess – and then he lays out where his organization needs to be 20 or 30 years from now to be on top of the game. And that is where strategic planning begins.
Strategic Plan Outlined
As seen above the strategic plan involves the organization leader choosing where to be 20 to 30 years down the road. He has examined the terrain, weighed his options, and chosen where the organization needs to be to be a leader in the future. The strategic plan intentionally calls for specific processes to take place to reach that pre-planned future goal.
All the decisions that must be made to create an organization's plan are made by answering the five "W" questions and the one "How." Each step in the process will address most of these questions, which means these questions create the foundation for the strategic plan. If they are not answered honestly then the plan is unrealistic and useless. This is not the time to have a team of "yes" people in the room. This is where everyone must be free to speak the truth and each individual must honestly assess each item, step, and goal. If not, the plan is not even worth the paper it's printed on and a lot of time and money wasted. With that in mind, here are some of the basic "W" and "How" questions that must be asked.
Who are we as an organization? A look into the mirror is needed to begin a strategic plan.
Who is our competition? A look outside the door is a must or you could find yourself outside the door with a "will work for food" sign.
What are our objectives now? Take a good honest look at where you are at this moment.
What objectives do we have planned for down the road?
What has the organizational goals been up to this point?
What goals do we need in place to reach the 30-year future goal?
When do you plan to reach specific levels? Set time lines but be realistic. Take into account the environment the organization is working in, the talents, and resources available.
When do you need to review this plan so that it remains flexible and viable? Place criteria into your strategic plan for reviews, and place warning signs to be watched for so that you do not blindly keep following the plan when unforeseeable changes in the environment and world take place.
Where are you now as an organization?
Where are your competitors now as an organization?
Where are your resources – now and in 30 years?
Where are your customers now?
Where are your customers in 30 years?
Where do you need to be as an organization in 20 to 30 years? This is more than looking at the 30 year goal. This intelligently places resources in place to move beyond the 30 year goal. That type of planning and implementation must begin now to stay on top.
Why are we here doing what we do? Without answering this you might as well clean out your desk, toolbox, locker, or just punch the time clock and go home.
Why do we think this is a viable goal to reach for? Yes, this is justifying your goals, the decisions that need to be made and the steps and procedures written out to reach said goals.
Why are we the best? If not, then the question needs to be asked: "Why aren't we the best?" These all must be honest assessments so an honest useful plan can be written.
If the five "W" questions have not been answered honestly then the "How" questions will reveal this because the answers to "How" will reach into absurdity and it should become obvious to individuals in the room that everyone is not telling the truth, but are kowtowing to the boss.
The first "How" question that needs to be answered is how realistic is this plan? This is the question that should reveal if everyone is telling the truth answering all the other questions.
How will this plan be communicated to the organization as a whole? If it's not presented properly or not presented at all, then how can the team members implement it?
How will the steps be implemented? In other words, how will the steps be broken down and who will be responsible for each step?
How will the resources be divided to accomplish the plan?
How will this plan be funded?
And finally, how do we know this is a viable plan?
Many of these questions are tough to answer, but with the plan in place this prioritizes what is important for the organization and which decisions, steps, and projects have priority.
Strategic Planning – Its Benefits
Strategic planning tells an organization where to focus its dollars. Money is not wasted on a project that might benefit the group for a month or two but is useless next year. Not only is money not wasted, but neither is the organization's time and energy. Resources are focused on the ultimate goal down the road, so all efforts are unified and any immediate projects, funds, decisions, and energies, are based on their merits to reach the organization's future goals. A strategic plan keeps an organization and its members focused on one goal and that focus is to reach the ultimate goal that is 20 to 30 years down the road. That is focus. And that saves an organization a lot of energy, time, and money.
Having a focused organization streamlines its operations, which creates less stress – it keeps stress to a minimal, which makes for a healthy organization. Look once again to the coach without a strategic plan. He is pacing the sideline while his defense is on the field. Why? Well, they brainstormed a plan for how to stop the team with the ball in four downs. They came up with the solution to attack the quarterback and rattle him so he would make a mistake. It backfired and now the offense is about to score a touchdown and his defense is without a plan to make a stand on their goal line. Everyone is stressed, angry, and no one has a solution.
If the coach had a strategic plan in place there would be plays outlined for all circumstances in the game. He would have known the quarterback of the opposing team was level headed and that trying to shake him up was a fruitless effort.
If you are streamlined, wasted efforts are kept to a minimum and workers know what they are doing counts. Everyone is working towards the same goal and that creates an atmosphere of camaraderie. That makes for an environment everyone enjoys coming to each day. And because the organization is focused and streamlined, it is easier to be at the top of your game.
Look at one real world example of an organization that was at the top of its game, but did not have a strategic plan that took into account its competition but stayed focus on itself.
Mike Lazaridis and Douglas Fergin were on top of the world in the late 1980s. The two engineers were changing the face of the smartphone industry with their BlackBerry. Companies were snapping up the smartphone for their employees realizing it was a game changer in communications. Companies were looking for an edge and the two engineers were offering that edge in the BlackBerry. Employees now could instantly check with managers to see what the latest developments were on a project and could instantly give customers quotes on products and jobs. Yes, the smartphone was a game changer.
What the duo failed to realize was their competition was looking at their product, looking at their way of doing business, and also looking at the changing market landscape. Employees were realizing the potential for the smartphone. Competitors noticed employees also were using the phone to call home outside the office. They realized families liked being in touch with each other. Enter the iPhone and Android with the focus of consumer smartphones versus business smartphones.
These two platforms entered a much larger market and both introduced a cheaper price. It did not take long for businesses to realize it was better for them if they let their employees purchase the phone of their choice and to offer some type of initial compensation. This saved company money and their employees were happier. It was a win-win.
The snowball for BlackBerry started down the hill in 2007 and was really gaining momentum by 2009. BlackBerry's choice to stay focused on its business market was losing dramatic ground and the snowball was about to crush its floundering product. The company brainstormed and tried tactical plans of introducing a touchscreen smartphone to consumers called The Storm, but it was not lightning fast and entered the party too late. The BlackBerry game changer no longer had a market; it had outlived its usefulness and the company who once was at the top began looking outside its doors for a turnaround artist. In 2014 the company still is struggling and looking for a way back into the marketplace.
Without a strategic plan in place, your organization could head down the same road as the BlackBerry.