Post by Patricia Hewitt, contributing Women On Business writer
Our discussion on best practices around strategy execution has finally arrived at the big event – the planning session (you can follow the links to read Part 1 and Part 2 of this series). Rather than jumping in the pool with all your clothes on, you have carefully prepared for this meeting by undertaking an Opportunity Analysis that defined your market opportunities and business drivers. You know which strategies make the most sense for your planning period, the initial financial analysis is done, and your team is ready to work together towards the company’s common goals.
So, let’s start with the environment. No, not going green. I mean the environment for your session, which is just as important. Strategic planning sessions are hard and sometimes, contentious work; especially if your company is in a downturn or your market is particularly challenged. I always recommend having these meetings off-site and over the course of at least two days, if possible. Off-site allows you to control participation and gets people out of their comfort zones (encouraging them to think more creatively), and two days provides the time you need to discuss, consider, and listen. In addition, it’s a good idea to have someone there whose sole job is to capture discussions, ideas, and follow-up items. Finally, you may want to consider bringing in a meeting facilitator or moderator. This may be out of reach for some companies, but it is money well spent. A professional strategic meeting facilitator will serve to keep conversations going in the right direction, encourage participants to speak up, and serve as an objective presence when you need it most.
As I mentioned in my first post in this series, the purpose of a strategic planning session is to plan your company’s next moves in the market. A great place to start the meeting is to review your organization’s vision and mission statements. These contain the guiding principles for any strategy you decide to undertake and all roads should lead to back to them (consider posting them up somewhere in the room, so you can refer to them often). Once this is done, you are ready to begin. I believe the heart of a successful strategic planning session beats in time to the excitement generated by the opportunity to work on defining your company’s future. As a manager, you know your career has reached another level when you are involved in these discussions. If the atmosphere in the room is reminiscent of prisoners who have been resigned to their fate and are awaiting execution, how much excitement do think is going to be generated by them once they leave the room? Not much, and that excitement is what powers the engines that drive your team to successfully implement strategic goals.
How to generate it? The level of enthusiasm your senior management team feels for your strategic initiatives will be in direct correlation with the passion of your leader. If a company president views strategic planning sessions as a necessary evil, their leadership team will too. I can recall working for a company where the president would schedule our annual strategic planning session for less and less time, until finally, we were simply sitting in a room and agreeing to the changes he made to our last plan. End of meeting, go back to work.
This memory brings me to another best practice I believe can make a strategic planning session much more powerful and that is to begin planning with a blank page. Build your plan up from the data gathered during your Opportunity Analysis combined with a recap of your previous year’s goals in relation to your long-term strategic plan. This allows you to modify your long-term goals and objectives based on material differences in your market, resources or company, while at the same time, imagining your future from a fresh viewpoint each year. Think of it as “zero-based planning”.
In his book, Creating Business Strategies that Work, strategic planning thought leader and author, Milton Lauenstein discusses the strategic planning methods used by Japanese companies, many of whom are considered some of the most successful in the world. One of the primary differences between their strategic planning and ours is the entire company’s commitment to a long-term vision of success. Consider that there are three key elements to this statement: First, they view a three or even five year strategic plan to be intermediate in scope; where we often struggle to maintain our focus over the course of a year. Second, the entire company is turned in the direction set by this plan and three; any employee can explain their strategic direction to you. On the drive home tonight, consider if you can say this about your company.
Strategic planning sessions should be approached with enthusiasm and passion tempered by facts and market realities. Make a commitment to the process by defining a realistic time period that allows room for thoughtful discussions. Undertake them in an environment that encourages fresh perspectives and embraces diversity, yet formed from your company’s vision and mission in the market. Start anew each time you write or modify a plan and finally, have no fear of enthusiasm for the work you do, because the final post in this series will be about executing the plan and that’s where the real work begins. See you next week.