Sometimes we make this strategic planning stuff much too difficult, too mysterious and too complex to be useful in the real, rough and tumble world of scaling a profitable growth business.
I well remember my first strategic planning session. I was a lowly materials manager at a division of a F500 company, down about four levels from the CEO, and I finally had earned enough stripes that I was invited to the annual planning meeting. About 30 managers from all over the country met in Boca Raton, and what resulted was just short of a full scale food fight.
- Little in the way of preparation.
- Less in terms of an agenda.
- No facilitation, just Big Dogs barking in the room
- Worthless brainstorming with no conclusions.
- Lots of arcane words and methodologies that no one really understood.
- And, then there was the shouting (make that screaming) match between the CEO and the president of the new acquired division.
Leaving there, I promised myself that if I were ever in a position of being president of a company, I would make this planning process much simpler, much more engaging and much more focused on the end points and deliverables than on the process itself. Also, since I had just experienced the worst, I then had an indelible image of exactly what not to do.
Last week, I came across an interesting HBR blog on Three Myths That Kill Strategic Planning which made me take a step back and think through the whole Strategic Planning-Business Planning-Sales Planning process.
So, just what is “Strategic Planning”?
Very simply, it's the setting of the primary directions of the business by the senior management team over a longer period of time, which is typically between 18 and 36 months?
- “Primary directions” are defined by the major initiatives that the management team has agreed are worthy of their time, focus and investment consistently over a longer period of time.
- “18 to 36 months” are defined by the fact that these primary directions (substitute the word, “strategies”) take time to implement, are not simple tactics or activities, and also require consistent follow up, discussion, review, tweaking and ultimately declarations of accomplishment and success.
The Rhythm of Planning
We’ve worked with hundreds of companies as their strategic planning coaches.
Companies that range in size and complexity from venture-backed startups to rapidly emerging companies to Steinway to the Boston Police Department and every conceivable type of business in a wide diversity of markets from tech to toys to trucks.
Great success…and also a couple of failures...and in all of the 25 years of those experiences, there are a few best practices that we’ve experienced.
- Buzzwords confuse everyone.
Create a common language of planning terms that make sense to everyone on the planning team. For example, don’t use Michael Porter’s “Five Forces” if even one person feels that the process is too complex.
Another example-the meanings of the words, “goals”, “objectives” and “plans” should not be synonymous. Once the planning team has agreed on the vocabulary, insist that the terms be consistently used by everyone, everywhere.
- Consistency is critical.
One planning meeting a year is totally worthless. If you're going to do planning of any kind well, you need to commit to an annual rhythm of planning. Think about a two day session at the beginning of the year which decides on broad strategic initiatives (“primary directions”). Some will be new. Some will be continuations and some will be decisions to stop an initiative. And, then get into the rhythm of three or four follow-on one day sessions to review and measure progress and follow up on assignments that were given in the prior sessions
- Create absolute buy-in and agreement.
Every planning session needs to end with an open review of the agreements which were made during the meeting and those that were not made. This is the time that text is written out on the flip chart as to the agreements so that everyone has the opportunity to agree or not agree.
Agreements, by the way, are made not only to commit to new primary directions, but they also need to be made to stop investing time and resources into certain initiatives that you are doing today that either are not working or the impact on the business is not meaningful.
If there's a lack of agreement, then there needs to be an open agreement as what the group as a whole, or specifically named individuals, will do in order to get to agreement following the meeting. Perhaps that agreement, for example, will require market research or a series of one-on-one meetings between two individuals.
One of the tactics that we've found to be very successful is that large numbers of the attendees leave every planning session with assignments and the requirement to come to the next planning session with reports and results. The bottom line is that the planning team must ultimately achieve total alignment; otherwise, there's are no "primary directions", just a series of worthless discussions. If there are no agreed upon "primary directions" that establish the framework for the business, then all of the tactical and action planning will lack a firm foundation and ultimately the business will not realize any level of scalable growth.
Ok, so what is "Business Planning"?
Again, we have this issue of terms. What you call "Strategic Planning" and what you call "Business Planning", and what you call "Sales Planning" is totally up to you and the vocabulary that you and your planning team agree to. In our practice, we distinguish the three by...
- Strategic Planning is longer term planning focused totally on the primary directions which require an investment of management time and money over the period of 18 to 36 months.
- Business Planning dovetails perfectly into the strategic plan in terms of the direction and investment in those primary directions, but is totally focused on the monthly and quarterly tactics and the activity planning that's required to achieve the company's annual business plan.
- Sales Planning then incorporates the month-by-month tactical and activity plans by individual salespeople for individual key accounts and primary prospects that tie into the annual business plan
Three types of plans, all neatly tied together in a framework of success. To that end-Success-one of the very interesting tactics that a friend of mine, Ed Boudreau, now retired as President of John Hancock, uses in his consulting business is to work with his clients to create a vision of success out 24-36-48 months. Once that framework is established, then the management team fills in the timeline with the necessary strategies, business plan tactics and sales activities that will get them to that point.
Does this planning stuff work all of the time? It does...if the senior team is committed to the rhythm of planning. By creating an integrated framework of plans, not only are all of the members of the senior team tied into the process from the beginning, but also everyone is fully aware and involved in the balancing act of the integration of these tactics and strategies from the standpoint of management focus, budgets and leadership commitment to make these plans happen on time and within budget.
These thoughts about planning always bubble up for me in July and August each year, as I think about updating our annual reissuing of our free ebook on "Writing the Winning Business Plan". You can click here for the current 2013 editions. One document relates to emerging startups while the other focuses on more established business. I'm always looking for edits and contributions, so if you're so inclined, just forward me your comments, and I will make sure that they get integrated into this August's rewrite.
Good Selling...and Planning
Have a great weekend!