Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Strategy Plain and Simple

Strategic planning is simultaneously considered mission critical to our organizations and the bane of our existence. We hole up our organizational leadership in a room for a day or more and cover the walls with flip chart pages.

At the end of the retreat, we feel energized, forward-thinking, ambitious. Brainstorming and banter coalesces into a brilliant 10-point plan for world domination. Then, life happens. We get back into operations and don't look at the strategic plan again until the next time we all head out for a planning retreat.

I've had this experience, but I've also seen a strategy session turn into a living, breathing systemic organizational focus that drove intention and created results. What made the difference? Simplicity.

Often strategic planning sessions look at EVERYTHING the organization does and goals are set in every area (after all, there's room for improvement in all areas, right?). The plan is a multiple page spreadsheet with goal 1, objective 1.1 and so on through goal 6, objective 6.25. The plan looks like a massive task list and none of the goals are given strategic priority. Such a deliverable is why plans get shelved.

The critical missing piece is focused priority given to those areas that are most MEANINGFUL. While there may well be six important things an organization does, all six are not equally important and equally effectively executed. (Imagine disaster struck and you could only choose 1 or 2 or 3 things the organization could keep doing. Which ones would you pick?)

The reality is people and organizations are only able to effectively focus on 3-4 or (preferably) fewer strategic priorities. If you apply the 80/20 Rule or Pareto Principle to your organization, you'll inevitably find a very short list of clients, markets and/or activities drive a disproportionate share of your organization's profitability. That's where you need to focus your time.

I don't believe in detailed tactical plans (goal 1, objective 1.1, etc.) in conjunction with strategy; I only believe in strategic focus documents, strategic thinking sessions and strategy reviews.

Strategic focus documents are simple, short statements listing the 1-3 strategic focus areas you identified as being the most meaningful in advancing your competitive advantage.

Strategic thinking sessions are continuous discussions about actions to take within the strategic focus areas, adjustments to the navigation or whole new courses to set based on new information or changes in the environment.

Strategic reviews are periodic checkups on what has been accomplished so far in advancing the strategic focus areas.

Instead of attempting to have staff implement a "task list" tactical plan developed by the leadership, embed strategy in organization-wide thinking and decision making.

People inherently know what to do (i.e., develop their own task lists) if they know what the parameters are for decision making based on the organization's strategic focus. Make the strategic focus areas the key agenda items of regular, not special, meetings. This makes strategy systemic, integrated in operations, not independent of them.

At its simplest, strategic thinking sessions are an exercise in answering some basic strategic questions that determine your differentiators:

1) Which?
2) Who?
3) How?

Which market, which product, which service? Who are we targeting? How will we set ourselves apart? How do we compete?

Simply use the answers to those questions to create the parameters, the "lenses" through which everyone in the organization sees it. If they make daily decisions that lead to specific actions based on these strategic parameters, then the "task list" takes care of itself.