I help companies develop strategic plans., and one thing that I often find is that people think that strategic planning is the process of developing goals for their company. The first thing I have to point out to them is that having goals is great and you need them, but goals are not a strategic plan.
Having goals are an essential first step for looking into the future because they define your ultimate vision of where you want your company to go. Goals can be almost anything from increased profits, better sales, improved customer service, eliminating a network shortcoming, etc. But if you are going to try to reasonably achieve your goals you need to turn them into both a strategic plan and a tactical plan.
A strategic plan is basically a way to rate and rank your goals and turn them into an action plan. Not everybody goes about this in the same way, but a normal first step is to assess the resources you have available to achieve each of your goals. Almost every company has two primary resources that are limiting factors – cash and manpower. So it’s vital that you somehow determine how much of your scarce resources are needed to achieve each goal on your list.
This is harder than it sounds. Let’s say you have listed five goals. For each of them you want to do the following:
- The first step is to rank your goals by importance. For example, you may have a few goals that are of top importance (like fixing a problem that is causing network outages or improving margins) while you will have other goals that are less important – at least for now. Theses perhaps the hardest part of the process because it is going to make you choose among your many goals and decide which ones are of the most importance to the business.
- Once you have a prioritized list of goals, then the next step is to come up with a list of specific tasks necessary to achieve each goal. Be realistic and explicit in this determination. For instance, if you want to increase sales to businesses, then figure out what you think it takes to make it happen. Is that going to require more cash in the form of hiring additional sales staff or paying higher commissions? Will it take more human resources – are there key people in your organization that need to spend time to make the goal happen?
- There is often more than one reasonable path to achieve a goal and so you also must explore the most likely alternatives paths to help determine which one that is right for you. This exploration is critical at this stage, because if you only consider one solution you will have locked yourself into a rigidly-defined path without flexibility. So spend some time brainstorming about the best ways to achieve each goal and don’t be afraid to consider multiple solutions.
- Once you have assessed the reasonable ways to achieve each goal, you are then ready to start getting strategic. Very few organizations have enough resources to pursue all of their goals at the same time, and so you need to determine which of the possible solutions to various goals you are going to pursue. This is where you have to get realistic about what can be accomplished within the time frame of your strategic plan. For example, if you have a fixed cash budget for the following year, you obviously can’t pursue plans that cost more than you can afford. And the same with people. If achieving your goals is going to draw too much time from key people, you need to get realistic about how much can be accomplished by the resources you have. This step requires making a realistic ‘budget’ for achieving your goals in terms of your cash and key manpower limitations. I have seen strategic plans that assumed that a few key staffers would spend all of their time on the new projects, and in doing so would ignore their current workload – and such a plan is going to fail due to lack of people resources.
- The way I like to do this process is much the same way that many people do a family budget. You start with the amount of resources available to ‘spend’, be that cash or key staff time, and then work backwards through the goals, considering the most important ones first, to see which you can afford to pursue. This can become hard because you will often end up end having to scrap some goals that are not ‘affordable’ and so this process often means making tough choices.
- You want to make sure that the final strategy you choose will choose goals that you can achieve in a reasonable amount of time. I’ve found that you are almost always better off by putting all of your effort into completing a few goals versus only making partial progress towards achieving many goals. You want your organization to have wins and to see progress and the best way to do this is to get the top goals on your list behind you before you tackle your next strategic plan.
The final strategic plan will end up as a list of the goals that you think you can achieve during the strategic planning time frame (should only be a few years at most). From there you are then ready to develop a tactical plan. This means establishing a very specific set of assignments, timelines, and budgets to make sure that the goals you’ve chosen can be implemented. It’s no good creating a strategic plan if you don’t take this extra step to make sure that that plan gets implemented. There are very specific ways to make sure that a tactical plan stays on schedule and on budget – but that is the topic of another blog.
If the above process sounds too challenging to tackle, then don’t hesitate to bring in outside help to facilitate the process. Often, after going through the strategic planning process a few times, businesses eventually don’t need outside help. But learning how to be strategic is like learning anything else; you will find techniques that work for your company, and once you learn the discipline of thinking strategically, you will start to see your goals come to fruition – an outcome that every company wants.