It’s October, one of my favorite months.  There’s a crispness in the air.  The nights are cool, but not yet cold.  The colors of the leaves are breathtaking. Business is back in swing after the vacation-riddled summer season.  And we realize that we are about to put the wraps on another fantastic year!   Or are we?  What’s more, we realize that we need to start planning for all the big ideas that we didn’t get to this year.  You need a strategic plan.  So, I ask again, it’s October, do you know where your business is?

Why do you need a strategic plan?

Developing a strategic plan is a time-consuming initiative.  But they are critical for the organization that wants to grow.  Successful business owners make sure to set aside time for the leaders of their team to focus on it.  It is difficult to fit it into the normal operations of a business.   The challenge is to dedicate time away from the day-to-day managing of your business in order to build a solid plan.

Another challenge many businesses struggle with is to put together a realistic plan. The problems I see with many plans is that they don’t reflect reality, nor do they provide the information needed to take the company into the future.

Let’s first answer the question of why have a strategic plan?

1) Without it, you are a ship without a rudder.

I think we’ve all heard this quote from Alice in Wonderland:

Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where—” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“—so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.

Too many leaders create their strategic plans like Alice here.  They have some nebulous idea like “grow bigger” or “give better customer service”.  But these aren’t strategic directions.  They are just good ideas on a flip chart.

2) To communicate your vision and your values.

This goes beyond the idea of identifying your “why”.  Identifying your why is important.  But it doesn’t stop there.  You have to communicate your vision to your team, your business partners, your community and your customers.  Author Brad Lomenick says “Leaders who don’t communicate their vision are no better off than leaders who have no vision to communicate”.  So true.

Your values are equally important.  A vision paints an aspirational view of where you want your organization to be.  A set of values puts parameters around your vision much like guardrails on a highway. For example, your vision may say that you are going to be the largest supplier in your industry, but your values say you are going to be environmentally friendly, honest with your customer and value diversity in your workplace.  These do not limit you from achieving your vision, but they shape how you will achieve it.

3) To drive alignment and decision making.

One leader I used to work for would say “there’s one train headed north, you are either on it or not”.  Once we had adopted a vision as a leadership team, it was critical that everyone was on board.  And furthermore, it is critical that decisions made throughout the day align with the vision and values set out on the plan.  If they don’t your vision loses credibility and you will never achieve it.

Problems with strategic plans

1) Lack of specificity.

One of the biggest challenges for most individuals is to get specific about their plans.  When I say specific, I mean specific.  As in, “we will increase revenue by 4% by the end of the fiscal year”, or “we will launch the new product to our beta test group by July 1st”.  But so many plans I see are lacking in specificity.  They speak of an unspecified amount of growth or lack a strict deadline, as in “we will increase product sales by the fall”.

When we set goals, we need to set SMART goals.  If you don’t know what those are, look it up.  I’ll save that for another blog.  But SMART goals force us to be specific and time-bound (hint, that is two of the letters).  If you aren’t setting SMART goals, then your strategic plan is just a dream.

2) Lack of creative ideas.

One common mistake I see in strategic planning is reliance on age-old ideas that are, again, lacking in creativity.  The most common of these is “we will provide outstanding customer service”.  Customer service is not a strategy.  Customer service is a function of what every company should provide.  Customer service should be a given.  When a business owner tells me that customer service is a key differentiator, I dig a little deeper with him.  If they can’t define what specifically they do different and unique that makes their customer service model different, I help them to realize that this is not a strategy.

Your strategic plan should stretch you.  It should challenge you.  And if your strategic plan doesn’t have at least one creative, innovative, “you’ve never tried that before” idea, then I would tell you that your strategic plan is lacking.

3) Lack of Owner or Key Influencer Buy-in. 

This may sound strange, but I have worked with organizations that took the time to create a strategic plan.  Their leadership team took time away from their regular schedule.  They rented off-site facilities.  They debated, discussed, challenged, encouraged, argued….  and came up with a strategic plan.  Only to have the owner essentially say that he was still driving the ship and that they “could work on that stuff if they want”.

Now, not all owners are that disconnected from their leaders.  But many in leadership do not really buy into the strategic plan.  You see this especially in the strategic plans for large departments in Fortune 500 organizations.  I have seen many plans go from the planning session to paper, only to become a dust collector on a shelf.  The reason – none of the senior management team really bought into it.

4) Inconsistent with vision and values. 

One other problem I have seen with strategic plans is that sometimes they are inconsistent with the vision and values cast by the same leadership team. You cannot say in your values that you strive for a work-life balance, and then roll out a strategy that requires 80 hour weeks from your team members.  You cannot say that you value the customer experience above all else and then put together a strategy to off-shore your help desk in order to save costs.

Let’s be real.  Your staff is smart.  You hired them because they know your business and are passionate about what they do.  They can see right through fake values and inconsistent visions.

Getting help with your strategic plan

I work with business owners, organizations and leadership teams of non-profits to create a strategy that fits with their values, mission and vision.  I do this through coaching and workshop facilitation.  We start with the eight foundational questions that you need to know before starting your strategic planning.  If you are interested, contact me today.