Matters Column

Avoid firefights with careful strategic planning

September 1, 2017
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When people talk about strategic planning, many images come to mind. Most imply careful thinking about what is intended to be accomplished. In the world of business, it is typically a process organizations follow to put actions in motion to achieve their mission or vision.

Because it is normally a somewhat complex process, the assumption is “professional” facilitators are required. Therefore, only big or highly successful organizations can afford the time and cost to do such work. There also is the perception in smaller organizations that the leadership is closer to the operations and it knows what has to be done intuitively, so no plans are necessary.

In a recent discussion with CPAs and mergers/acquisition specialists, they noted how few small businesses had a strategic plan, and the owners often were surprised they would not be able to achieve the desired value for the business if they sold it in the current condition. They also noted with a bit of focused effort, they were likely to increase that value substantially in just a few short years.

All too frequently, an operating style of working in a day-to-day problem resolution environment ends up with decisions that don’t really support the intent of the business or organization. It may even move to a crisis stage that requires a change if the organization is to survive. These perceptions often affect how an organization manages the various actions that drive the organization through its evolution.

Changing these perceptions requires making the commitment, getting a clear picture of where you are and where you want to go, and then begin putting the bricks on the road.

Options for consideration

For most organizations, strategic planning can be a viable option at any time and it can be done after just a little training. It does not necessarily require a lot of cost and oodles of time. It requires someone who can think about what is desired at some future point in time or someone who can help others with this knowledge and articulate the future and associated goals.

Much of this article centers on setting up a strategic plan. But if you already have one, you may want to consider some of the points below to see how and if they have been handled effectively. Look for an objective methodology to assess your plan. Can the results be measured against the principle organization goal? Results must be definable in a very objective fashion. “We will go forth and do good work,” doesn’t cut it. Also, make sure there are well-defined timelines.

If you lack a plan or have an ineffective plan, the first step is to make the commitment to thinking beyond the day-to-day activities and planning. You have to be able to commit to more than just “firefighting,” and you have to be willing to let or demand others on the team focus on more than immediate matters.

In small organizations, there may not be enough people to do both things. Even so, if you want to assure yourself or your organization you can reach the envisioned future, you must learn planning cannot come after all the fires are put out — because that time will never come. Since you must have the ongoing activity to assure that the organization will be around for the future, you must put practices in place that will keep the routine under control and yet allow time for the planning activities. It is a carefully structured dance.

The balancing act

One strategy often used to put strategic planning in place is a retreat. The key organization players go off-site somewhere where they are not likely to be bothered by events of the day. They are asked to complete various exercises and have frank discussions about various elements important to the success or failure of the organization. Then they try to reach consensus about what actions they should take. These notes are documented and, hopefully, contain some timeline for completion.

All too often, the notes are kept confidential among the senior staff and hauled out periodically for review. Unfortunately, they are often viewed as ancillary to existing actions, programs and problem resolutions of the day. And they must compete for time, attention and budget. Because they are down the road, they often take a second seat to more immediate matters.

To avoid this scenario, you will need a strong and supported balancing act so planning doesn’t end in the “also-ran” category. Top leaders in the organization must champion the plan and its various parts. They must be held accountable for directing and accomplishing the required tasks and doing the same with subordinates. This responsibility speaks to one of the most overlooked aspects of strategic planning, communication to the organization. A public announcement means there is a commitment being made and there will be accountability. It must speak not only to those who have direct responsibility but to those who may be affected by the changes that are expected to be brought about through the plan.

However, before the communication is shared, it is necessary to anticipate what will happen to the organization, its culture and various employees and groups in order to manage expectations, i.e. maximize the positive and minimize the negative, while being realistic. You want this to be a controlled smooth waltz, not a jitterbug reacting to the latest drumbeats.

Plan execution considerations

Up to this point, we have talked only about the first stage of plan execution — announcing what is expected to happen. The real execution normally comes about in routine changes or what people are accustomed to as routine. These regular but continual advances toward the ultimate objective are more easily managed, become accepted more quickly and cause less disruption than the crash program and associated events that occurs when all is left until November or December because program X has to be completed by year-end before the budget runs out or a bonus payment is on the line.

This point about a bonus also is a worthwhile area to note when it comes to strategic planning. Senior executives have a responsibility for guiding and protecting the organization. They should get a bonus for reaching legitimate milestones often established in a strategic plan, not just a good short-term financial result, which should be a given. The prudent executive may even sacrifice a little short-term gain for a step toward a valuable long-term objective. In fact, linking all the executives to the same milestones may create some very healthy and collaborative practices.

This business of bonuses seems to speak to the environment of large organizations. Perhaps it is also important to think about the rewards for the owners of the smaller businesses. These people often have their life wrapped up in the organization and their bonus comes on the day they sell the business or turn it over to another family member or partner.

In either case, bonus or ROI doesn’t just happen if there isn’t a plan or a focus to have all the components of the organization working in harmony. An effective strategic plan can orchestrate both planning and execution, balanced with the ongoing operations. It can be done, and it is rewarding!

Ardon Schambers is principal at P3HR Consulting & Services

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