Saturday, May 8, 2010

Strategic Planning

This post will deal with the specific issues around strategic planning regardless of organizational size. The same rules apply for all.  I am a big proponent of planning and specifically strategic planning.  It is critically important to know how to plan so you can build the road ahead.  It provides for downstream direction and more importantly a reduction in dysfunctional behaviour.

There can be as many methodologies for planning as there are plans.  Do not let the different approaches confuse what is the purpose of the plan.

Strategic blocks 

The information for the plan flows from the bottom up and is distilled from the higher levels to make the plan.   Once the plan is made then it must be lead from the top down.  The vision must come from the top.  It may seem simple but all to often this is not the case.  When the plan is driven from the bottom the phrase “the inmates are running the mad house” comes to mind.

What is the function of each of the areas?


The strategy function is the high level that defines where is the organization and why does it want to be there.  The vision in short. The goals are based typically on the SMART acronym of Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and finally Time Framed.  This is typically driven from the mission.

Let’s break this down.  The goals have to be specific and not some nebulous touchy feely element.  You want to grow the company by X or you want to have all products under one group, or you will acquire companies for volume or product growth.

You need to measure the goal so you will know when you have gotten there and more importantly, what needs to be done to get there.  People do not do what you “expect” they do what you “inspect”.  The inspect portion is the measurement.  Another caution here is to measure what gets you somewhere and not burden down the system by too many measures.  I have seen firms spend more on  the measurement then on what the function brings in value.  This is a real concern and as a leader of the strategic plan you need to have your measurements be part of the overall plan and with the correct tools to measure effectively.

The goals have to be achievable.  You cannot put a goal out there that no one believes is reachable.  You want to create stretch goals that make the organization better but not so stretched that buy in to the goal will not be supported.

Realistic goals are those goals that fit the culture of the organization and the overarching team to achieve the goals.  This part of the discussion leads to comments about hiring new skills or rethinking some approach to realistically attain the goal without undo harm to the overall organization.

Without a timeline, most goals are not reached.  The interest wanes and the prospect dims.  Once the timelines are in place then you need to have regular checkpoints to see how you are progressing.  Failure to do so may surprise you when you are getting close to the deadline and you are not there.  This goes hand in hand with measurements.  Your measurements should have expected values for each of these checkpoints.

The strategic plan should be an inclusive approach from the bottom up to gather as much information as possible.  However, the final decisions have to come from the leaders in order to be executed properly.  Strategic plans can be managed to success but they are lead to greatness.  You want to give a clear picture of the plan and why you want to get there.

The strategic plan should span years and have regular checkpoints to ensure you are on track.  It also gives you time to adjust elements in order to achieve the goals.


The tactical plan is how you break down the goals into major functions so you can achieve the goals in the timelines specified.

This part of the exercise is where everyone takes their areas of the goals and breaks them down into relevant and meaningful objectives.  These objectives are the building blocks to achieve the goals.  The increment steps to success.

Objectives will span disciplines and departments and will require coordination between the major players.  These objectives can also use the SMART acronym but have a lower context view of the issues.  You may need several objectives to attain just one part of the goal.  The issue and focus has to be on how do we deliver the parts of the solution for the goal in a structured deliberate way.

The tactical plan is typically 6 months to a year and involves shorter checkpoints.  These shorter checkpoints allow for quicker decision making and minor adjustments.


The operational plan are the short term tasks to achieve the objectives of the tactical plan.  These may projects that deliver key elements for the tactical objectives to attained.  These short term tasks are very specific and will be larger in number than objectives.  The objectives may create many tasks in order to achieve the objective.

The teams required here are more specialized and rarely cross boundaries.  These smaller units are able stay focused on the tasks and have insight into the objectives.  They will know of the goals but will have little insight into the actual progress of the goals.  They should have insight into the objectives.

What are the elements of a strategic plan?


The vision is what you want to be.  A future statement of how and what your organization will be know for.  It is a small statement that reflects a line in the sand that can be defined.  It should not be a novel with legal, politically correct statements.  If you need to have a coffee and muffin to read it, then the vision can be effective.  The vision is the point in the future.  An example is

“To be the #1 choice of our customers”


How will you get there is the mission.  The mission statement is the action item to deliver the vision.  Using the example above the mission statement could read

“We will focus on value, a superior customer experience and innovation”


Goals are the key elements to execute the mission to realise the vision.  The Goals to support the fictitious Mission and Vision above could be.

1) Reduce order process times to 1 day

2) Provide a new major release every 6 months

3) Decrease billing errors to .01 percent.

What are the impacts to the plan?


People need to buy in in order for the goals to be achieved the mission to be executed and the vision to be realized.  To do this you need to open communications from the bottom up.  Get the input from the operational people.  Distil this information and let it provide insight into your vision.  The vision, must be reflective of what your people can achieve.  They may need assistance to get there but that will be flushed out in the goals.

I cannot stress enough you need input NOT decisions from the bottom.  All too often I hear, well that is what the department wanted.  This is so wrong on so many levels.  How can we expect a line person to understand the entire machine.  Their insight is very helpful in how we deliver the end product or service but their view is limited to their area.

All too many projects have failed for they tried to please everyone and when you are trying to perform structural change this is not a realistic condition.  Fess up early and get the people to understand or at least know the reason why of the vision.

Remember people respond to what you inspect.  Your measurements should be sensitive to positive outcomes and not compliance.


The day to day processes need to be aligned with the objectives and goals.  Failure to do so, will make the attainment of the objectives and goals highly unlikely. 

The measurement components should be non-obtrusive and the analysis of them part of the process. 

Processes may need to change to support your goals and objectives.  Ensure everyone knows why this is being done.  When processes are aligned you will get buy in and you will not get trapped in the bureaucracy of management of measurements.  I too see this often.  If the measurements are not part of the process then people start to manage the numbers and not the process.  This is very dysfunctional.  The measure has to support the end means and not just be a box to fill in. 


In most cases in order to truly be successful, the people need to have bought in and the processes have to aligned.  Typically doing this will also ensure you have tools to easily measure the outcomes and to provide this information to the people required to action this to achieve the goals and objectives.

In Conclusion

Plan the work and work the plan.  It is as old as the Romans and still very relevant.  Strategic planning is very important and should be part of any organization regardless of size.

Larger organizations will have formal processes and will have disciplines in place to adhere to the processes.  When and if you become part of these plans, be proactive, probe deeper and find out why certain goals need to be achieved.  It will go a long way in making sure your objectives meet the overall goals.

If your organization does not have a formal process, make one for your area.  The rest of the organization will follow.  If you do not have vision how do your expect your people to follow you.

Another question I get asked often is “I am only a manager how do I do strategic planning”.  This is actually quite simple.  It is a matter of perspective.

The executive branch makes the strategic plans for the whole organizations, Directors then provide tactical plans to achieve this.  Their managers will then in turn be given tasks to achieve the objectives.

Now comes the fun part.  To the organization above you are providing operational tasks.  However, to your staff you are providing strategic goals.  Then the supervisors below you are now giving you tactical plans  and the line staff are given operational tasks to achieve their tactical goals.  It is the water fall effect.

I am currently a Director.  I get my marching orders from the CFO.  I then translate them into tactical plans and operational plans.  To my staff I am providing strategic direction but to my boss I am providing tactical leadership.  You just keep doing this till you run out of reporting layers.

Information and metrics follow the same path.

The executive team decide where they want the ship to travel based on forecasts, staff input and their personal leadership positions.  They they ask the staff to ensure all the elements of the ship can be monitored and managed to arrive at the destination.

By everyone focussing on their role and contributing in a positive way the organization will achieve the plan and hopefully the plan was a good plan.  If the plan was faulty but is being followed correctly then adjustments become easier to apply.  When there is no formal process and everyone is rowing at their own pace and direction, the ship will go nowhere but everyone will be working hard.  Working hard is not the way to success, working effectively is.