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My Best Advice on Strategic Planning

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Below is a note I put together for a client I have worked with for many years. It’s a $50 million-plus company that is exceptionally well-run and was getting ready to hold its annual strategy retreat.

 

Scott, we have discussed that you are getting ready to go into another round of strategic planning, which will include two new businesses you have acquired. So, I thought I’d send along some ideas to help you have the most successful retreat possible. As you know, I have been a guest lecturer at the Wharton School of Business for the last 22 years, delivering a class on strategy and strategic thinking at the Securities Industry Institute. I have also led well over 100 strategic planning retreats. So this is a subject I’ve given a great deal of thought. Here are some key ideas around strategy, strategic thinking, and strategic planning.

 

I can boil my entire Wharton class down to one key sentence:

Successful Strategy = Valued Differentiation x Disciplined Execution

This equation is deceptively simple and extremely powerful. Let me take a moment to explain it more fully.

 

To build a winning strategy, you must bring something to the marketplace that is:

1. Unique and compelling
2. That your target customer sees great value in and is willing to pay any reasonable price that you ask
3. Is difficult or impossible for your competition to copy
4. You can consistently deliver it with excellence

If your strategy meets all these criteria, you will have a solid foundation for your plan.

People often get wrapped up in the SWOT analysis, value chain analysis, branding and positioning strategies, customer analytics, and other planning tools. These can be very useful. However, if you don’t put good strategic thinking in at the beginning of the process, you can use all these tools and still develop a plan that will run your company into the ground. A computer term summarizes this perfectly: GI = GO (garbage in = garbage out).

Several years ago, I delivered a workshop on leadership and strategy at Cornell. To up my game and try to bring some new information to the table, I went back and deep-dived into strategic thinking. During this effort, I had an epiphany of sorts when I realized that one of the most important things a great strategic thinker does is figure out when to say “no.”

All strategy is the allocation of limited resources into the areas that create the most leverage for the organization.

What strategies will you not pursue? What products and services will you not offer? Are there customers you do not want to serve? What projects need to be killed?

These are tough questions, and many business leaders are afraid to ask them. But great strategic thinkers understand that they are the ones that must have the courage to figure out what the company will no longer do.

 

Now, let’s look at some tactical elements of effective strategic planning.

 

1. Be exceedingly well prepared and do your homework

I have been in far too many strategic planning retreats where people are just “guessing” at critical information. Ensure that the data you use to build your strategic plan is recent and reliable.

2. Have a clear goal

Things can get off track quickly. Know what outcome you want before going into the retreat.

3. Don’t waste time

It is expensive to bring a group of senior executives together and spend the day putting sticky notes all over the wall. I strongly recommend that you do the analyses before the planning retreat. I typically send out a survey a few weeks before the retreat and compile all the information into an “Executive Report.” Instead of spending several hours doing a group discussion, I hand out the report, break people into small teams and ask each team to list the major takeaways. This allows us to gain consensus very quickly and move on to the more critical part of the retreat: setting strategy.

4. Follow your strategic objectives

To create an updated or new strategic plan, the primary outcome of that meeting should be a handful of very focused and clear strategic objectives. You’re not there to create the plan. The tactical part of the plan should be built by the people who are responsible for implementing the plan.

5. How do you make the strategy into a living document?

Here’s what I’ve done in all the companies I’ve run. I try as hard as I can to get the entire strategy down to 10 pages or less (Many companies I work with now try to get it down to a single page). Then, I put it into a handbook (we called it the Red Book at the Rockefeller foundation I ran because we bound it with a red cover). I would tell everyone to bring the Red Book to any meeting where we would make strategic decisions.

6. Make your team accountable

Another significant factor in effectively executing strategy is creating a strong culture of accountability. Set expectations. Develop binary KPIs. Establish clear roles and responsibilities. Ambiguity breeds mediocrity.

 

This is not everything I know about strategic planning, but keeping these key things in mind will alleviate a lot of wasted time and effort. I hope you found these ideas helpful. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to send me a note. I’m here to assist you in any way I’m able.

Good luck – John


For nearly three decades I have traveled worldwide helping businesses and people to be more successful. During that time, I have discovered that there is a clear pattern of four things that all highly successful organizations focus on. I call it the Formula for Business Excellence. In this free 30-minute video, I will share it with you.

Important: There is absolutely no selling in this video. It is 100% content with ideas you can implement immediately to make a dramatic positive impact on your business.

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