Strategic Planning or Strategic Thinking

Strategic Planning or Strategic Thinking

by Grant Tate

“There is only one strategy, Tate.”

“What’s that, Bob?”

“Keep your options open,” replied my big boss, the VP of Manufacturing.

I had just finished presenting our division’s 5-year strategic plan and our 2-year operating plan, both containing revenue projections, costs, human resources, and risks. My team had worked for months exploring every opportunity and examining the major external and internal factors that might affect our unit, culminating in a multi-page presentation we thought would be compelling.

But Bob thought we were too rigid. We’d developed a first-class strategic plan but were deficient in strategic thinking. Deflated, we returned to our offices but a week later came back with an exciting, human-based plan that included what-ifs, trigger points, contingency plans, and intensified strategic scanning of the business environment. Bob approved our plan.

Bob’s words ring especially true today. Uncertainty reigns. Inflation, political turmoil, rising interest rates, uneasy workforce, technological change, and market turmoil stress our ability to plot our organization’s path to success. The plan we presented to Bob would have no chance of surviving today.

So what are we to do? How do we think strategically when the future is so foggy? Is strategic planning worth it?

To get you thinking, here are some basic steps.

  1. Renew your business purpose (we call it Massive Transformational Purpose). People need a sense of direction. Why are we here? What are we trying to do? What should I be doing to help? The message: Even amid this chaos, we have important work to do.
  2. Set three to five relatively short-term goals—things to accomplish in six to twelve months. (The timeline depends on the kind of business or organization you have.) Make sure the outcomes are measurable. And have every unit and individual set their own goals in alignment with the organizational goals. Here are the goals we are shooting at. Make sure your goals align with these.
  3. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Make sure everyone understands the goals and their role in their accomplishments. Have regular morning huddles, weekly and monthly meetings to track progress, and make adjustments. To many leaders this may seem like overkill—too many meetings, but evidence shows that repetition is necessary to get results.
  4. Set up a strategic searchlight team—a team designated to continually scan the market and external situation and provide feedback to the organization.
  5. Have a regular monthly strategy meeting to discuss market indicators and other strategic issues. Use this meeting to make adjustments, evaluate progress, and start or stop initiatives.
  6. Make sure your organization structure is up to the task. Turmoil demands agile organizations. Teams need to adjust rapidly to changing business opportunities or challenges. This, of course, requires a rapid reassessment of goals and team direction. It calls for inspired, decisive leadership. Agile organizations need managers and employees who are comfortable with change and can adapt to new situations. This is a new way of thinking for many organizations today.

Strategic management is an ongoing process that should not begin and end with a “strategic plan.” This is especially important when the future looks chaotic.

Yes, leaders and all employees need agility. Still, they must also develop a strong sensitivity to the internal and external conditions that affect the organization and that open the door to new opportunities. That means strategic thinking. It also means strategic vision.