Strategic Planning for 2019

Last January I wrote a post on creating a personal development plan by picking a future destination for your life and figuring out what goals and task steps you need to complete achieve your plan. I mentioned that my inspiration was the process of beginning the development of a strategic plan for an organization I run. We just completed that plan, which again made me think about the importance of goals and planning not only in our lives but for organizations. The important lesson from this process for me was that quality long-term plans require long-term effort to complete. The ideas I had a year ago only slightly resemble the final plan. The benefits of developing such a plan go beyond having a road map to follow on your journey through time. The process established priorities and revealed unknown strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. If you follow the steps in the process outlined here, you will find hidden treasures as you plan your organization’s future. This is not an overnight project, but rather a short trip to identify what is important. As a leader, you have an obligation to set up your organization for future success. The principals are the same as developing your personal development plan, but more people are involved in the process.

Every strategic planning process begins by gathering facts to help you identify your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. This process is called a SWOT analysis. Use other people to work on the SWOT assessment. Others have different perspectives on your organization. Vendors probably have a better understanding of you supply lines. Customers see how well your customer service responds to problems customers face. Line workers know what quality controls work, and which need improving. Managers know about the quality of employees and challenges of training and retaining good people.

When working on your SWOT assessment, think of strengths and weaknesses as internal issues. Gather information from your employees and internal contractors. Opportunities and threats are external issues. Key people in your organization may have some perspective on opportunities and threats, but your best information comes from those outside the organization. Ask your vendors and customers about things you do well and things you can do better.

There are two major theories about identifying strengths and weaknesses. The first is that you should ignore your weaknesses and only continue to develop your strengths. The second is you should build your weakness in order to become more rounded and effective in more areas. A third theory is to focus on your strengths, but examine your weaknesses to identify those that have the potential to destroy you. No matter how strong your strengths, some weaknesses prevent you from reaching your full potential. You need to develop those weaknesses to allow your strengths to propel you higher.

For example, you might run a small retail store and know little about employment law and accounting. You contracted with an HR firm to help you with employee issues and a CPA for accounting. Even with their help, if you do not know some basic principals you may find you still end up in trouble. You might deny an employee a right because of an on-the-spot decision that results in a law suit. Your accountant discovers you do not verify your monthly financial report and starts to divert your money to his or her accounts. Your accountant ends up with the beach villa and you end up in debt.

Analyzing threats and opportunities is challenging. The challenge lies in the fact that what appears on the surface to be a threat may be an opportunity in disguise. Like strengths and weaknesses, you can focus on responding to either, but it is probably better to recognize and conduct some risk mitigation for a few threats and focus on your opportunities.

Reach out to your vendors and customers. Develop a short online survey and ask them to complete it. You may learn of a feature customers want but you do not offer. A vendor may tell you about a potential problem in your supply chain not known to you.

Your facts help you determine where your organization is right now. Facts do not tell the whole story. No person ever has all the facts, not even Google. People fill in gaps with assumptions. It is dangerous to blindly assume anything. Use facts and good judgment to reach reasonable conclusions. As you gather more facts, reassess your conclusions and assumptions in order to continue being successful.

Role up your SWOT assessment as a grid with the SW in the top two quadrants, and the OT in the bottom two quadrants. This allows you and others to visualize the relationship of all the facts.

I attended a few classes on leadership when the instructor encourages students to write their own obituary. Organizational leaders need to do a similar exercise by envisioning what they want others to say and think about their organization. This exercise allows leaders to pinpoint their organization’s future. There was a time when people talked about The Phone Company when referring to AT&T, or dreamed of paying off their Sears card. Instead today, people have a choice of phone companies, and the executives at Sears dream of extracting themselves from their debt quagmire. When Walmart opened its first store, Sears, Newberry’s, and Woolworth’s were the retail giants. No one ever doubted they would stay in business. That is why it is important for organizational leaders to see the future of their organizations.

Values, or guiding principals, are an important part of creating your organization’s strategic plan. An exercise I use in my training requires students to select their values from a list on a worksheet I provide. This is an awesome group activity that needs to start before any planning retreat. Include this as part of a pre-retreat survey. Ask survey takers what values best reflect the organizations and provide a list. Limit them to a few answers to focus on the most important, three to five. Provide a space for them to enter an answer not provided. During our values focus group, we struggled to narrow down three similar values into one. One participant spoke up and suggested we keep them all because they are necessary to the work we do as a team. BAM! Teamwork had not been offered as a value or principal, yet it was the very term to describe what to describe what we were trying to say.

Now that you have an idea about where you want to lead the organization in the next few years; you understand the organization’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats; and you know what guiding principals are important, you can start to chart the path. Identify two to five activities or achievements your organization needs to accomplish to reach their destination. Think of each of these as milestones. Each should build on and support the others. Limit your strategic goals to five or less.

For example, you decide you want to become the premier craft brewery in your region. You spend one or two years learning about medium levels of producing brew. In the second year, you develop your brand and marketing plan. In your third year you develop a pub menu that comes from local suppliers and appeals to your target audience. In your fourth year you renovate your space to make your customers comfortable and encourages repeat visits. Each goal depends on the previous goal to reach success. You cannot do all of them at the same time well, so you focus on one area, building on success each year.

Use some of the information from your SWOT analysis to focus your strategic goal setting. You may recognize that you seek to achieve a particular task, but one of the critical resources was identified as a weakness. Strengthening that weakness will help you achieve your goal. Use product ideas from your external surveys. If your customers are asking for it and you are not figuring out how to meet their demand for it you can bet your competitor will.

Just because the focus is on one goal does not mean you ignore everything else. Complete activities to support your main effort, and prepare for the transition from one goal to the next. Figure out which supporting activities are essential for the completion of the main effort. Schedule those tasks on your organization’s calendar. Assign a person by name or title to supervise and complete each task. No matter what, the main effort needs to be the main effort.

You only have to plan the task steps of each goal as the start date approaches. Many things may happen in the world as your strategic plan becomes reality. Action plans at this stage only require two to four steps.

A final step in strategic planning is resource allocation. Knowing there can only be one main effort, every resource in the organization must be poised to support that effort. You cannot plan on your master brewing becoming an expert on using modern technology to brew old fashion recipes and then slash your travel and training budget the next year. The two ideas are incongruent. Ensure your resources are aligned to support the main effort.

Strategic plans are like road maps in that they are only helpful when drawn out. Anyone who has tried to follow verbal directions knows how hard it is to remember whether you were supposed to turn left at the third traffic light, er was it right? When your plan is written you can refer back to it to remember what comes next. A document is easier to share with others increasing understanding across the organization. You can use your plan to lure investors, employees, and customers. Even if you leave the organization, your replacement knows why certain things are being done, and understands what comes next.

Strategic plans can be a one-page document, or a multi-page report. You want enough detail so there is no question about why the organization is changing, how it plans to change, or what changes are coming. If you have a small organization you can farm out the work to a consultant. There are benefits of hiring someone outside the organization to write the plan even if you have the resources to do it yourself. They can remove jargon making the messages clearer. That fresh set of eyes serve as a common sense check.

December and January seem to be the time of the year people pause and reflect. As one year ends and another begins people recognize the importance of planning for change. I provided some ways your organization can plan for the future by analyzing strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Gathering and analyzing facts allows your organization to reach reasonable conclusions and make informed decisions about future objectives. Aligning short-term goals with long-range objectives ensures your main effort has support. Clarifying your values helps develop the direction. Creating a written plan ensures you have a solid picture of how to use your resources over the next few years. The plan serves as your map. With your map (written plan) and compass (values) in hand, navigating the uncertain of the future is easier. Take some time this season to draw your organization’s map before it starts the journey in 2019.

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Photo Credits

Starting line by Martin Roz from Pexel.com CC0 License

Builders by Michael Gaida from Pexel.com CC0 License

SWOT by Author

Map Saddle by Author