What are the Five Steps in the Strategic Planning Process?

Taking risks to seize opportunities for growth builds your business and helps you achieve your goals. However, smart risk-taking requires planning and if long-term sustainability is your goal, then your planning process requires a balanced approach. Purpose, Growth & Survival, the foundational principles that support strategic success within any organization, despite the size, type, complexity, or industry. You need a robust planning process that ensures you have the right information at the right time to take the risks that will grow your organization – not slow it down.


Too many times, we engage in a form-over-function planning process that is not only inefficient but lacks real business intelligence to accurately assess risk and properly prioritize effort and resources. The primary objective of strategic planning is not the creation of a fancy document that says little as it will likely end up a paper trail for future failure.



The primary objective is to provide clarity of purpose and direction for its achievement that can be understood and acted on by each and every employee. The goal is to articulate the mission-critical priorities that should drive the allocation of energy, effort, and resources day to day to fulfill the mission and vision of the organization. The goal above all else is to create alignment.


Sounds great, right? So, how do we actually do that?


There are five basic steps you need to follow to create a strategic plan and they may not the ones you’ve traditionally known. Let's review each step of the Essential Strategy planning approach and then you can apply it to the particular way your organization works.


Step One: Clearly Define Your Purpose and Vision

Seriously. Define it. All the planning in the world will not help if you don’t understand what you’re trying to do (purpose, cause, or belief), and more importantly WHY.


Simon Sinek illustrates the concept so elegantly when he asks what are you trying to do and why should anyone care? If you cannot answer these two questions in a way that convinces someone who knows nothing about you and your organization, then there’s work to be done.


THE FIRST ACTIVITY to undertake is a review of your Purpose, which is the culmination of your mission, vision, values, and story) including an honest REVIEW of how well it is understood by your employees, volunteers, and other key stakeholders. A handful of people are likely responsible for defining these things within your organization, so you must be willing to test it with others outside of that group.


ACCOMPLISH THIS by asking hard questions as to whether our current statements match what you actually do (and want to do). You then ask employees what it means to them, if it’s inspiring and whether they are able to connect the work they do each day with reaching that ultimate goal.


The feedback you get from those two efforts will help to ensure you’ve clearly defined and articulated Purpose – the first foundational principle of a successful organization, and supports 2 of 7 key attributes needed to ensure execution – a Defined vision and an Aligned workforce.


There are five basic steps you need to follow to create a strategic plan and they may not the ones you’ve traditionally known.

Step Two: Assess Your Current Reality

Now that you know where you want to go and why, you need to tackle an open and honest assessment of your ability to get there. Step two is a deep dive into your internal capabilities as well as a scan of things happening external to your organization that have the potential to affect strategy. Internal speaks to those things you can control such as strengths and weaknesses within resources, tools, and system agility and adaptability.


The external environment addresses threats and opportunities that are not directly within our control but can be planned for if you are actively scanning for them such as regulatory change, technology shifts, rising/falling competitors, and high-impact events (pandemic being a recent example.)


THE FIRST ACTIVITY to undertake is reviewing or choosing the assessment tools used to ensure they are the best fit for what you need – there are many with SWOT analysis, PEST analysis, and 5-Forces being at the top of the list. But don’t stop there. Other planning tools include SCORE, NOISE, SOAR, Capabilities Agenda, Perception Mapping, four-square matrices (which can be set up to measure and contrast nearly anything), and the list goes on.


ACCOMPLISH THIS by doing your research to identify the appropriate tools for your organization, make sure you use them correctly, populate them with good data and then take the time to really analyze what that data is telling you. This is the basis of creating the kind of business intelligence required to identify strategic objectives and make strategic decisions.


Step Three: Identify Strategic Priorities

In Step three you will start pulling all the data together in prioritizing key initiatives for the upcoming planning year. What you should end up with is a list of key objectives, based on the data, that address the organization’s purpose and growth as well as survival resilience. Given the rapidly changing environment in nearly all areas of business (non-profit and government agencies included), focus on a rolling three to five-year plan cycle that creates a living action plan to be reviewed and adjusted at least annually.


THE FIRST ACTIVITY to undertake is to lay out all objectives identified in Step 2 and sort them into the purpose, growth, and survival (resilience) categories. Next, ensure that each represents something that is critical path to the achievement of your vision and mission – the ones that are not should be put aside but not discarded (they may not be the highest priority but are clearly important if they made it this far into the process). Finally, try to identify connections between what’s on the table – are there related initiatives that should logically be done together and therefore prioritized similarly. With that, you are ready to begin making decisions about initiatives.


ACCOMPLISH THIS by boiling down the list to just a handful of total initiatives, ensuring that you are maintaining balance across purpose, growth, and survival. Remember that you are building a multi-year plan, so think about urgency and impact to define a logical progression as you move through your 3 or 5-year plan mapping. Be realistic about the time and energy it should take to complete each one factoring in the available capacity of your resources and tools.


Step Four: Put Your Plan into Action

Now it’s time to launch your strategic plan. Step 4 is where you must take a plan devised by the few and communicate to the many in a way that is meaningful, relatable, and efficient. Take the time to actually develop a communication plan to disseminate your strategy. People don’t need a pile of new goals and targets – what they need to understand where you’re headed and why.


Your philosophy on goal cascading (or not) is yet another decision that needs to be made and is where you loop back to ensure you have good alignment across the organization.


THE ACTIVITY to be undertaken here is a sharing of the big picture strategy with the larger management team so they can begin working to align their people and define targets that support the plan (which sometimes is simply doing what they already do consistently and efficiently.


ACCOMPLISH THIS through open forum meetings that fit your organizational structure; if you have multiple levels, ensure that a top-level leader who was involved at the core level is present in all such meetings to ensure that nothing is lost in translation. Establish clear expectations and set direction, goals, and targets based on the system you use and let your people have the opportunity to help define how to support and create success within the defined strategy.


Step Five: Monitor, Measure, & Adjust

Once our plan is launched, you now move into navigating – just like a ship at sea. Remember that decisions you made were based on information from a snapshot in time, and so you must now continually monitor for material changes to those assumptions to determine whether you need to adjust course or adapt.


THE ACTIVITY here is supported by an ongoing review and assessment of key performance and risk indicators based on significant changes in the internal or external environment followed by a discussion around how these things are speeding up or slowing down strategy execution and what should be done about it (if anything). Do not be afraid to make course corrections or revise tactical efforts in order to adapt to changing circumstances or even badly conceived ideas that sounded good at the time.


ACCOMPLISH THIS by ensuring you have good data flow throughout the organization and that the team is empowered to contribute to the ongoing risk and opportunity dialogue. This gets harder and harder to do as the organization grows but ensuring that information flow systems are filtered for noise but not bottlenecked is crucial to the overall health and development of the organization.


If you find that you need to adjust your plan, ensure that you are truly adapting and not sandbagging – performance failure is an indicator that you may need to reprioritize efforts to shore up internal systems or tools but does not necessarily mean that the plan or target was bad.


As you measure your progress and continue to collect data, you might identify new priorities that might need to be inserted above other priorities to ensure that you continue on the path. Think fluidity and agility rather than rigidity. Your plan, like your organization, is a living thing and should be approached with the mindset of a continual cycle of learning, growing, and evolving.


Consider Working with a Strategic Planning Consultant

If you are overwhelmed by the thought of creating a strategic plan, you’re not alone. Many organizations short-change or completely avoid strategic planning because they don’t see the value. This is where a strategic planning facilitator can help you have a deeper conversation, identifying blind spots, and better articulating things like purpose, risk appetite, and strategic performance measures. If you’re not getting good value out of your process, consider reading our tips on how to achieve a good ROI on your planning process.

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