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Demystifying Strategic Planning

“Strategic planning” is an obtuse phrase that generates angst in the minds of managers and dollar signs in the eyes of consultants. Some people would like you to believe that strategic planning is hard and that only certain people—the “strategy guys”—are capable of producing a strategic plan.

Horse hockey! Not only is strategic planning simple, but its underlying principles are also applicable and rewarding in many facets of your personal and professional life. Its deepest value is not so much in the resulting plan but in the mindset engendered by embracing strategic intent.

Here is a three-step process that will help you make strategic planning a natural part of your organization and your life.

Step 1: Embrace a Strategic Planning Mindset

Strategic planning is first and foremost a mindset. It is a way of thinking and engaging with the world that influences—and often predetermines—your responses to and interpretations of situations. Live deliberately. The strategic planning mindset is anchored in the determination to act and move with intent. It follows that to move with intent you must have a clear sense of where you are headed. As my strategically minded mom was so fond of saying, “if you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.”

It follows further that, to have a clear sense of where you are headed, you must first understand where you are. Once you are grounded in who and where you are, you can devise a reasonable plan for getting to your destination.

That’s it! A strategic planning mindset, in its essence, is defined by the following three questions to ask yourself and your organization:

  1. Where are you?
  2. Where are you trying to go?
  3. How will you get there?

Where are you?

Clarity about who and where you are is essential to acting deliberately and moving with intent. Who are you? Why are you here? Who are your customers? And what are they hiring you to do? What are your strengths and assets? What are your threats … and your opportunities?

These are the questions that you must ask yourself frequently to ensure that you remain clear and grounded.

Where are you trying to go?

What is possible? Who do you want to be? What do you want to achieve? What do you want to accomplish? Where are you headed?

How will you get there?

What are the actions, activities, and milestones that will get you where you want to go?

Step 2: Adopt a Strategic Planning Process

Once you have a strategic mindset you need to maintain a rhythm of moving, reviewing, and revising your plans and actions. So often we think of strategic planning as an annual process that produces a beautiful document or a set of initiatives that are cascaded down through the organization.

Not so. A strategic planning mindset calls for a rhythm that is much more active—and much more responsive—than an annual planning cycle. At the organizational level, a rhythm of monthly, quarterly, and annual reviews and revisions are critical to maintain clarity and stay on track. At the personal and team level, a more granular rhythm of weekly, quarterly, and annual checkpoints produce the best results.

At each weekly or monthly checkpoint, review your status and direction.

  • What have you done? How far have you come?
  • Are you still heading in the right direction?
  • Based on where you are at this moment, is this still the best way forward?

On a quarterly basis, take a deeper look at how far you’ve come, confirm where you’re trying to go, and recalibrate as necessary.

On the annual cycle, celebrate your progress. Also take the opportunity to recommit to your course as well as introduce a new destination or trajectories. Document your discoveries and commitments in a revised strategic plan.

How these principles become an embedded process depend entirely on you and your organization. Create and adopt processes that work for you. Like the strategic planning mindset itself, review and adapt as necessary.

Step 3: Create a Strategic Planning Document

Once you have embraced a strategic planning mindset and adopted a strategic planning process, the strategic plan evolves naturally. Create a simple document to serve as the formal codification of your intent. It doesn’t have to be a 50-page glossy with pictures and maps and artist’s renderings of dreams yet to be funded. A strategic plan can be a simple memo, a three-page document, or a few paragraphs on a website. Use as many (or as few) paragraphs as necessary to capture where you are, where we you trying to go, and how you intend to get there. What’s key about this document is that it is evergreen.

The most important thing is to articulate—and captured in writing—where you are trying to go and how you intend to get there. The strategic plan serves as a magnetic north. As you move through the weekly, monthly, and quarterly rhythms, you check your compasses against the plan and recalibrate as necessary.

The key is to always keep moving. The author E. L. Doctorow notes, “Writing a novel is a lot like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Strategic planning—as is living deliberately and moving with intent—is much the same. You can only see to the horizon, but if you keep moving, and keep correcting, you can go anywhere.