January 2, 2022

A 'How-to' Guide for Strategic Planning

"The process of developing and writing a strategic plan is widely regarded as the most challenging and frustrating task that leaders and managers are called on to execute," according to Lieutenant General C.V. Christianson, USA (Ret.) and Colonel George L. Topic, USA (Ret.) in an article entitled "Strategic Planning: A 'How-to' Guide." Published in Joint Force Quarterly 74 (3rd Quarterly, July 2014), the co-authors point out that "It is rare for senior executives, military commanders, and agency directors, and by extension their subordinates and team members, to go long without facing this requirement. It not only calls for focused effort for extended periods but can also be highly stressful."

Based on my experiences of going through the strategic planning process for those ventures where I served as a co-founder, I agree with the article's authors "that an effective strategic plan cannot be developed without the sustained commitment and effort of the leaders of the organization and the cooperation of major stakeholders, both present and future. This process is so challenging because teams and leaders need to ask and discuss—and answer—many difficult questions." To facilitate the process of creating a plan for a new business venture, I created a document that presents questions on a variety of topics founders should consider.

Messrs. Christianson and Topic importantly add that "in some cases these questions are unanswerable. Ironically, answers are not always necessary; a satisfactory payoff on the investment of time and energy can sometimes result merely from the process itself. Such endeavors are not without risk. Ill-conceived or poorly managed efforts can do great harm and even catastrophic damage."

In addressing why bother with creating a strategic plan, the article correctly explains that "strategic plans are developed because of recognition of significant changes in the external and/or internal environments or under direction from senior leaders. In the latter case, this is presumably a well-reasoned judgment that a new plan is necessary because the leader sees or understands something that might not be obvious to everyone. In any event, it is important for every participant to understand the impetus for the effort. It is also useful to refer back to this question and the answers during the development, writing, and implementation of the plan."

Referencing Simon Sinek's book Start with Why and video from a 2009 TED conference, the article's authors suggest these resources "offer a useful introduction to how to think about the why question." According to Messrs. Christianson and Topic:
While there is no "one size fits all" solution, Sinek's approach can be used as an "icebreaker" to help start thinking about the central issues a strategic plan must address. He uses a pattern he calls the golden circle to describe how some leaders and organizations have been able to achieve a disproportionate influence while others have not. He defines three concentric circles. The outside circle is "what we do." Sinek postulates that every organization on the planet knows what it does—that is easy to identify. Moving toward the center, the next circle is "how we do what we do." This circle is not as obvious as the what circle and is often used to describe differentiations from one organization to another. The center circle is "why we do what we do." Sinek states that few individuals or organizations can clearly articulate their why—that is, their purpose. They also "distilled Sinek's pattern or framework into the following basic questions around which this portion of the process should generally revolve:
  • "Why does the organization exist? Why is it there and why should anyone care? This is the purpose of the organization.
  • "What guiding principles do we embrace? This describes how we do what we do by identifying the core beliefs that define organizational culture and behavior.
  • "What do we do? This describes our mission (this is harder to answer than it might seem) and what essential elements and critical tasks are necessary for success. If everyone agrees to the answers to these questions, the rest of the process should be relatively straightforward."

The article includes a discussion on strategic goals, roles and responsibilities, implementing guidance, and the important role of strategic communications. Regarding the role of communications and strategic planning, Messrs. Christianson and Topic note:
The key to communications and strategic planning is to start early, and that must be an element of every part of the plan development process. Waiting until the plan is complete before deciding how to convince everyone it is their plan is generally unwise. The essential task is to ensure that each step enjoys clear understanding and broad support both internally and externally. Plan writers will not be the ones integrating, synchronizing, and prioritizing the work/ actions of the organization in concert with the goals. Making sure participants are genuinely welcome to voice their concerns and raise questions not only builds support but also produces better results and possibly averts catastrophes. Offering stakeholders a voice in the development and assessment of a plan, or merely allowing them to ask questions, is vital to gaining support. Finally, having open and robust communication channels promotes transparency and demonstrates commitment to the continuous improvement of the plan.
Lastly, I agree with the article's concluding paragraph on the importance of listening: "We encourage strategic planners to be bold and creative and above all to listen—both to others and to themselves. Planners often fail to hear their own voices and ignore their own visions because they spend all their time cobbling together the equities of everyone else. Finally, nothing is final. The best plans are continually assessed and adjusted as factors change."

In my post, "Your Business Plan Is Your Business's Roadmap," I note the importance of having a business plan. In those ventures where I serve as a co-founder, the process of writing a business plan is one of the first exercises my colleagues and I will undertake. While I can attest to how stressful the process is, there are many benefits of undertaking the task of creating a plan. These benefits include ensuring we have a shared vision on the product or service we seek to create and alignment on how we will structure, run, and grow our business. The business plan serves as a useful tool to define our company's mission, goals, monetization strategy, key performance indicators, financial data, and risk factors. I also find the article prepared by C.V. Christianson and George Topic a useful "how-to" guide for business planning.

What aspects of the article do you find most useful?

Aaron Rose is a board member, corporate advisor, and co-founder of great companies. He also serves as the editor of GT Perspectives, an online forum focused on turning perspective into opportunity.

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