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Strategic Planning: Fact and Fiction, Useful or Useless?

Published: April 17, 2017
By: Will Williams, PhD, MBA

What is Strategic Planning? A written strategic plan, when done well, is both the road and the map itself. 

Fact: Simply put, it is a tool an organization uses to clarify its vision of the future [The Map] and then lay down the clear, concrete actions needed to get there [The Road].

Fiction: What it should not be is a theoretical, pie in the sky, feel good company retreat that discusses vision without addressing the action necessary to get where you want to go.

It may seem self-evident that a business knows where it’s going and how to get there, but that is often not true or certainly not true of the entire organization. Most organizations today are lean, busy and mostly focused on today’s priorities.

As an organization grows and ages, it often grows and becomes more complex.  Customers, products and staff change. All of these changes can muddy what once was a clear sense of direction, team spirit and purpose. Internal processes, organizational structures, lines of communication and management styles that may have been suitable or brilliant in the past, may not work well anymore.

So, what good is the Strategic Planning process?

Useful: The result of a good Strategic Planning process is clear direction and priority - a prerequisite for strong, effective organizational performance. A good Strategic Planning process also identifies the resources needed to complete the strategy. Management has clarified its understanding of the business environment, the organization’s strengths and weaknesses, and the direction it is going so it can respond correctly and rapidly to threats and opportunities, continuously tuning operations to maintain progress toward the goals. Clarity of purpose and path make it easier to communicate this vision and direction to all employees, enhancing morale and their ability to do their work effectively.

Two major objectives are achieved through the Strategic Planning process. First, the business strategy is reviewed, and confirmed or modified with a 3-5 year time horizon.  Detailed steps to reach established goals are delineated with metrics to monitor progress put in place. Next, and sometimes more important, it serves as a teambuilding process and gets the team members aligned toward a beleivable future and a common understanding of the work ahead. 

Useless: A poor strategic planning process produces a fuzzy goal with no solid plan on how to reach the targets. This leads to confusion in the organization about what the direction is and what each person is supposed to do.

When is it appropriate to conduct a Strategic Planning process? 
Often a change point in the company triggers the need for a Strategic Planning process.  These change points include:

  1. Retirement or change in key personnel
  2. Growth of organization’s size so things are now getting lost or not done correctly [systems breakdown]
  3. Desire to go to the “next level”
  4. Ownership change, generational change
  5. Stagnation of profits or growth
  6. Losing money and want to turn it around
  7. Business environment has changed
  8. Feeling of loss of control by the management
  9. Management cannot oversee all the details anymore
  10. Breakdown in morale
  11. Business is just not fun anymore, how to make it better?

Key Points:

  • bring the team to the same understanding of how the company operates and its business environment
  • end up with the same ideas on where it is going, how it will get there and “what I need to do”