In nearly every engagement where my goal is to craft strategy, I arrive at a point where my collaborators or clients and I need to create a narrative of the good thinking the emerged during the many processes we linked together and begin writing a master document, sometimes call a Strategic Plan. This article covers the foundational elements of the process, discusses strategic context, outlines the possible components of strategy, reviews some the important decisions that need to be made along the way, and concludes with a discussion of the difficult transition from strategy crafting to implementation.
There is a wide variety of strategic planning documents, some are short while others lengthy, some are mostly text while others feature graphics and pictures, and some are directive while others philosophical. Yet with all of the variation some commonalities shine through. The foundational elements arise from questions and considerations derived during the strategy crafting process. This section covers the early considerations and strategic context important to developing a useful strategic plan.
More often than not, those seeking to develop a strategic plan envision a single, lengthy tome that reads like a book and provides all of the collective actions necessary to achieve greatness over a defined period of time. This sort of master operating manual for the future is the hope that entices both planners and executives. Many hold on to their dream of creating such a document. In reality, these kinds of strategic plans are doomed to being marooned on bookshelves for a number of predictable reasons. While they may be grand documents shortly after being written, they exist in a changing world and lose relevance with each passing quarter and year. Vague visions lack the detail to be actionable. Individual strategies move at their own pace and become out of synch. Resource estimates made at the point of planning quickly show their error during implementation. Staff and leaders move in and out of positions and lack the knowledge of what they are doing and why. As my colleague Don Norris likes to say, “these kinds of plans quickly turn to fairy dust” and become forgotten.
My foundational principle is to consider a strategic plan not as a single grand document but as a system of living documents of many different types developed for a variety of purposes. Here is a listing of some of the possible elements in the system of documents that become a strategic plan:
- Purpose and Assumptions – the beginning assumptions of the planning process that include things like foundations upon which strategy is based, part of current plans that should be tested moving forward, recognized conditions or commitments that are believed to be unchangeable, known future states that must be accommodated in emerging plans and actions, and beliefs about what is possible in the future. This document should answer the question, why planning now?
- Strategy – this is the heart of the strategic plan and includes components such as mission, vision, values, strategies, goals, actions, outcomes, the planning horizon, and the strategic context. I explain each of the these elements more fully in the sections that follow. For many, this is what comes to mind when a strategic plan is mentioned.
- Imagery – I like to challenge organizations to choose to create a single page graphic or image that represents the entire strategic plan. While I sometimes experience resistance to over-simplifying, I have found that in the end, this single page image becomes the most used and referenced document in the time that follows the planning period. Executives can quickly review their strategy with their employees, boards, customers, and publics.
- Implementation or action – many planners and leaders know that actions need to accompany strategy or little to nothing gets done. Given that, you would be surprised at how many strategic plans do not include sufficient detail on implementation to fully execute strategy. Beyond the specific actions required to achieve each strategy of a plan, implementation depends on how the actions are sequenced, the length of time allowed for any one action to be accomplished, who will complete the action and ensure it gets done, and what outcomes should be observed once the action is complete.
- Financial or funding – an even more overlooked element of a strategic plan is an honest estimation of the resources required, both human and financial. So many plans exist as organized dreams with no practical connection the realities of the complexities of resourcing implementation. New strategies are often layered on all existing operations asking individuals to go from 100% to 125% of workload. Equally disastrous is a strategic plan that creates unfunded mandates. A more sound approach is to include an integrated, aligned financial and resource strategy that accompanies vision and goals.
- Communication – plans can be developed in any number of ways, some written by a small but wise group, others through broad participation and input. With the latter approach, communication is part of the process from the beginning. With the former, the success of the effort is highly dependent on how the plan is communicated and accepted by those that are tasked with implementation and action. I like to suggest that communication plan accompanies the strategy, action, and resource elements in a system of documents.
- Units, division, or specialty areas – many individuals in organization ask how does this affect me or my department during the planning process. Strategy can exist at such an abstract organization or ecosystem level that there is no way for individuals to understand what to do. Implementation and action plans help this, but the best strategic plans ensure vertical alignment. This is the connection from top to bottom in the organization. Some strategic plans require aligned sub-plans from each of the organization’s units, divisions, or speciality areas.
For each of these elements, I like to answer each a number of questions that helps determine if we need a document or if the issue may be addressed in another way or in another document. What is the name of this document? Names are important when working with a system of documents. Further considerations are how they hang together and how they are sequenced. Who is the audience? Not every part of the strategic plan is acceptable or necessary for every audience. In many plans for example, implementation details need only be viewed by employees and managers, while important strategic statements like vision and values need to be shared very broadly. Also, some documents may need to have multiple versions for multiple audiences. What outcome does it drive? Each document in the system should exist for a reason and beyond that it should drive some kind of outcome or impact. What are the contents? This goes without saying, but we need to be thoughtful about the length and contents of each document. Short and concise is better than the alternative. And finally, how does the system of documents hang together. This has gotten much easier now with hyperlinked online material than it was in the days of bound paper.
I often use the following graphic in a strategic planning session I call the drafting workshop where I work with the plan writing team to begin to organize their thinking about the system of documents that might emerge from the planning process. Sometimes I will construct and complete a grid containing each of the questions as rows and the documents as columns to better understand the system of documents the make up a strategic plan.
All of these considerations cannot be fully addressed at the onset of a strategic planning engagement, However, without a full vetting of the possibilities, we often end with misunderstood expectations, or even worse, a failed planning process. However, with a honest dialog about the system of documents that should result from the planning process, potential is created, and the organization is better positioned for success in the process.
About the Author
This article was written by Robert Brodnick , a strategy consultant who bring the best of thought-leadership and practice-leadership to help organizations spark thought and ideas, design and achieve their future vision, and navigate change as they focus, strengthen, and transcend current limitations.