Posted by: kevinliebl | May 11, 2009

Strategic Planning 101 – Why most efforts fail and how to avoid the most common mistakes!

In difficult economic times like this, when most companies are struggling, many are turning to the strategic planning process to address revenue, organizational, personnel and vendor challenges.  My definition of strategic planning is as follows:

“Strategic planning is both a process and a discipline that enables an organization to concentrate its limited resources on mutually predetermined, measurable objectives. The purpose is to make decisions before the future either forces decisions or renders them irrelevant.”

This loosely translates to “make some good decisions before you run the company into the ground!”  The problem is that many companies implement a poorly designed strategic planning process and do not address the real issues.  To illustrate, I will borrow a parable from “The three laws of performance” by Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan (see my recommended reading list).

An old man was walking home late one night when he saw a friend on his hands and knees under a streetlight, searching for something.  “What are you doing?” he asked his friend.  “I dropped the key to my house.”  “I’ll help you look.”  After a few minutes of frustrated searching, the old man asked, “Where exactly were you when you dropped this key?”  His friend pointed toward the darkness.  “Over there.”  “Then why are you looking for it here?”  “Because this is where the light is.”

I think that this simple story eloquently demonstrates the problem.  We tend to search for answers to our problems in places where it’s easy to look, rather than in the dark, unfamiliar (and often uncomfortable) hidden places.

The Strategic Planning Process

The Strategic Planning Process

As my graphic indicates, there is a sequence of steps that need to be taken to properly implement a strategic planning session.  One of the most important is to “decide” to plan, to dedicate the proper resources and to establish management commitment to dive into the difficult areas.  In my experience, this is one of the most critical and most difficult steps.  Therefore, it is often the Achilles’ heal of most planning sessions.

Let’s be honest, strategic planning is difficult. Many companies attempt it.  They spend 2-3 (or more) days offsite.  They put together a plan and get it nicely bound.  The board approves it, and they file it away and forget about it.  This demonstrates a commitment to the session, but not to the process.  The exceptions are the companies who actually execute the plan.  This is 10 times harder than actually building the plan!  There must be an full-understanding and commitment to the entire process from top-down for the effort to be successful.

I will write more on strategic planning in future blogs, but let me close with one of my favorite stories on “commitment”. After landing his invasion forces on the shore, the Spanish explorer, Hernan Cortes immediately burned his own boats.  It sent a message to his troops.  “We can’t turn back.  Either we succeed or we die.  Excuses are not an option!”  Whether it is an urban myth or true, it is a great example of commitment to a goal.

Action Item: If you are thinking about implementing a strategic planning session, research and implement a formal process.  Do not go into the session without proper up-front planning and commitment.  Consider using an outside facilitator with experience in strategic planning to lead the session.


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