Strategic planning: Read this before it's that time again

September 15, 2021 - 17 min read

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What is strategic planning?

What is strategic management?

10 steps in the strategic planning and management process

Benefits of robust strategic planning and management

Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.
- Dwight D. Eisenhower

It’s that time again. 

Every three to five years, most larger organizations periodically plan for the future. Many times strategic planning documents are shelved, forgotten until the next cycle begins. On the other hand, many smaller and newer organizations, propelled by urgency, may not devote the time and energy to strategic planning. Only 63% of businesses plan more than a year out. They fail to see that — contrary to Alice in Wonderland’s Cheshire cat — “any way” does not take you there. 

For all organizations, a more rigorous annual planning process is critical for driving future success, profitability, value, and impact.

John Kotter, a former professor at Harvard Business School and noted expert on innovation says, “Strategy should be viewed as a dynamic force that constantly seeks opportunities, identifies initiatives that will capitalize on them and completes those initiatives swiftly and efficiently.”

There’s hardly a better case that can be made for dynamic planning than in the tech industry, where mergers and acquisitions are accelerating exponentially. Companies need to be nimble enough to navigate rapid change. In this case, planning should occur quarterly.

What is strategic planning?

Strategic planning is an ongoing process by which an organization sets its forward course by bringing all of its stakeholders together to examine current realities and define its vision for the future. It examines its strengths, weaknesses, and strengths, resources available, and opportunities. Strategic planning seeks to anticipate future industry trends.  During the process, the organization creates a vision, articulates its purpose, and sets strategic goals that are long-term and forward-focused. 

Those strategic goals inform operational goals and incremental milestones that need to be reached. The operational plan has clear objectives and supporting initiatives tied to metrics to which everyone is accountable. The plan should be agile enough to allow for recalibrating when necessary and redistributing resources based on internal and external forces.

The output of the planning process is a document that is shared across the enterprise. 

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Strategic planning for individuals

Strategic planning isn’t just for companies. At BetterUp, strategic planning is one of the skills that we identify, track, and develop within the Whole Person Model. For individuals, strategic planning is the ability to think through ways to achieve desired outcomes. Just as strategic planning helps organizations realize their goals for the future, it helps individuals grow and achieve goals in a desired direction. 

Working backward from the desired outcome, effective strategic planning consists of coming up with the steps we need to take today in order to get where we want to be tomorrow. 

While no plan is infallible, people who develop this skill are good at checking to make sure that their actions are in alignment with the outcomes that they want to see in the future. Even when things don’t go according to plan, their long-term goals act as a “North star” to get them back on course. In addition, envisioning desired future states and figuring out how to turn them into reality enhances an individual’s sense of personal meaning and motivation. 

Whether we’re talking about strategic planning for the company or the individual, strategic plans can go awry in a variety of ways including: 

  • Unrealistic goals and too many priorities
  • Poor communication
  • Using the wrong measures
  • Lack of leadership

The extent to which that document is shelved until the next planning cycle or becomes a dynamic map of the future depends on the people responsible for overseeing the execution of the plan.

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What is strategic management? 

"Most people think of strategy as an event, but that’s not the way the world works," according to Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen. "When we run into unanticipated opportunities and threats, we have to respond. Sometimes we respond successfully; sometimes we don’t. But most strategies develop through this process. More often than not, the strategy that leads to success emerges through a process that works 24/7 in almost every industry."

Strategic business management is the ongoing process by which an organization creates and sustains a successful roadmap that moves the company in the direction it needs to move, year after year, for long-term success. It spans from research and formulation to execution, evaluation, and adjustment. Given the pace of change, strategic management is more relevant and important than ever for assigning measurable goals and action steps

Many organizations fail because they don’t have the strategic management team at the table right from the beginning of the planning process. A strategic plan is only as good as its ability to be executed and sustained. 

A strategic management initiative might be driven by an internal group — many companies have an internal strategy team — or an outside consulting firm. Ultimately company leaders need to own executing and sustaining the strategy. 

Strategic management teams

In this Harvard Business Review article, Ron Carucci from consulting firm Navalent reports that 61% of executives in a 10-year longitudinal study felt they were not prepared for the strategic challenges they faced upon being appointed to senior leadership roles. Lack of commitment to the plan is also a contributing factor. In addition, leaders attending to quarterly targets, crisis-management, and reconciling budgets often consider the execution of a long-term strategy a low priority.

A dedicated strategic management team works with those senior leaders and managers throughout the organization to communicate, coordinate and evaluate progress against goals. They tie strategic objectives to day-to-day operational metrics throughout the enterprise. 

A good strategic management group can assist in creating a culture of empowerment and learning. It holds regular meetings with employees. It sets a clear agenda and expectations to make the strategic plan real and compelling to the organization through concrete objectives, results, and timelines. 

10 steps in the strategic planning and management process

1. Define mission and vision 

Begin by articulating the organization's vision for the future. Ask, "What would success look like in five years?" Create a mission statement describing organizational values and how you intend to reach the vision. What values inform and determine mission, vision, and purpose?

Purpose-driven strategic goals articulate the “why” of what the corporation is doing. It connects the vision statement to specific objectives, drawing a line between the larger goals and the work that teams and individuals do.

2. Conduct a comprehensive assessment 

This stage includes identifying an organization’s strategic position.

Gathering data from internal and external environments and respective stakeholders takes place at this time. Involving employees and customers in the research.

The task is to gather market data through research. One of the most critical components to this stage is a comprehensive SWOT analysis that involves gathering people, bringing perspectives from all stakeholders to determine:

Strengths
Weaknesses
Opportunities
Threats

Strengths and weaknesses — In this stage, planners identify the company’s assets that contribute to its current competitive advantage and/or likelihood for a significant increase in the organization’s market share in the future. It should be an objective assessment rather than an inflated perspective of its strengths. 

An accurate assessment of weaknesses requires looking outward to external forces that can reveal new opportunities as well as threats. Consider the massive shift in multiple industries whose strategy has been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. While it was disastrous to the airline and restaurant industries’ business models, tech companies were able to seize the opportunity and address the demands of remote work. 

Michael Porter’s book Competetive Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors claims that there are five forces at work in an industry that influence that industry’s ability to develop a competitive strategy. Since the book was published in 1979, organizations have turned to Porter’s theory to create their strategic framework. 

Here are the 5 forces (and key questions) that determine the competitive strategy for most industries.

    1. Competitive rivalry: When considering the strengths of an organization’s competitors it’s important to ask: How do our products/services hold up to our competition? If the rivalry is intense, companies need to consider what capacity they have to gain leverage through price cuts or bold marketing strategies. If there is little competition, the organization has a substantial gain in the market.
    2. Supplier power: How might suppliers influence strategy? For example, what if suppliers raised their prices? To what extent would a company need a particular supplier for our product(s)? Is it possible to switch suppliers in a way that is more cost-effective and efficient? The number of suppliers that exist will determine your ability to keep costs low.
    3. Buyer power: To what extent do buyers have the ability to shop around right into the hands of your competitors? How much power does your customer base have in determining price? A small number of well-informed buyers shifts the power in their direction while a large pool may give you the strategic advantage
    4. Threat of substitution: What is the threat of a company’s buyer substituting your services/products from the competition? What if the buyer figures out another way to access the services/products that it offers?
    5. Threat of new entry: How easy is it for newcomers to enter the organization’s market?

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3. Forecast 

Considering the factors above, determine the company’s value through financial forecasting. While almost certainly to become a moving target influenced by the five forces, a forecast can assign initial anticipated measurable results expected in the plan or ROI: profits/cost of investment.

4. Set the organizational direction of the business

The above research and assessment will help an organization to set goals and priorities. Too often an organization’s strategic plan is too broad and over-ambitious. Planners need to ask, ”What kind of impact are we seeking to have, and in what time frame?” They need to drill down to objectives that will have the most impact. 

5. Creating strategic objectives

This next phase of operational planning consists of creating strategic objectives and initiatives. Kaplan and Norton posit in their balanced scorecard methodology that there are four perspectives for consideration in identifying the conditions for success. They are interrelated and must be evaluated simultaneously.

  • Financial: Such considerations as growing shareholder value, increasing revenue, managing cost, profitability, or financial stability inform strategic initiatives. 
  • Customer-satisfaction: Objectives can be determined by identifying targets related to one or some of the following: value for the cost, best service, increased market share, or providing customers with solutions.
  • Internal processes such as operational processes and efficiencies, investment in innovation, investment in total quality and performance management, cost reduction, improvement of workplace safety, or streamlining processes.
  • Learning and growth: Organizations must ask: Are initiatives in place in terms of human capital and learning and growth to sustain change? Objectives may include employee retention, productivity, building high-performing teams, or creating a pipeline for future leaders.

6. Alignment

It’s a team effort. The success of the plan is in direct proportion to the organization’s commitment to inform and engage the entire workforce in strategy execution. People will only be committed to strategy implementation when they're connected to the organization's goals. With everyone pulling in the same direction, cross-functional decision making becomes easier and more aligned.

7. Strategy mapping

A strategy map is a powerful tool for illustrating the cause-effect of those perspectives and connecting them to between 12 and 18 strategic objectives. Since most people are visual learners, the map provides an easy-to-understand diagram for everyone in the organization creating shared knowledge at all levels.

8. Strategic initiatives

Determine strategic initiatives. Following the development of strategic objectives, strategic initiatives are determined. These are the actions the organization will take to reach those objectives. They may relate initiatives related to factors such as scope, budget, raising brand awareness, product development, and employee training.

9. Performance measures and analysis

Strategic initiatives inform SMART goals to which metrics are assigned to evaluate performance. These measures cascade from senior management to management to front-line workers. At this stage, the task is to create goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based informing the operational plan. Benchmarks are established against so that performance can be measures, and a time frame is created. Key performance indicators (KPI’s) are assigned based on organizational goals. These indicators align workers’ performance and productivity with long-term strategic objectives. 

10. Performance evaluation

Assessment of whether the plan has been successful. It measures activities and progress toward objectives and allows for the creation of improved plans and objectives in order to improve overall performance

Think of strategic planning as a circular process beginning and ending with evaluation. Adjust a  plan as necessary. The pace at which review of the plan is necessary may be once a year for many organizations or quarterly for organizations in rapidly evolving industries. 

Benefits of robust strategic planning and management

Strategy development is a lot of work, but the benefits are lasting. After all, as the saying goes, "If you fail to plan, you plan to fail." Taking the time for review and planning activities has the following benefits:


  • Organization and people are set up to succeed
  • Increased likelihood of staying on track
  • Decreased likelihood of being distracted or derailed
  • Progress through the plan is communicated throughout the organization
  • Metrics facilitate course correction
  • Budgets enterprise-wide are based on strategy
  • Cross-organization alignment
  • Robust employee performance and compensation plans
  • Commitment to learning and training
  • A robust strategic planning process gets everyone involved and invested in the organizations
  • Employees inform management about what’s working or not working at the operational level
  • Innovation is encouraged and rewarded
  • Increased productivity

    The strategic planning meeting may have a reputation for being just another to-do, but it might be time to take a second look. With the right action plan and a little strategic thinking, you can reinvigorate your business environment and start planning for success.

    It's that time to get excited about the future again.

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Published September 15, 2021

Meredith Betz

Betterup Fellow Coach, M.S.Ed, M.S.O.D.

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