Virtually every company I’ve been at or consulted has been in desperate need of a formal strategic plan. Since I’m generally involved with start-ups, so much time goes into creating the product and raising money, having a formal plan can appear as a luxury and/or a wasted effort until “more important” things are taken care of — like finishing the product and raising money. I don’t disagree but if there are more than a few people involved with starting the company, it can be very easy for people to get off track and a somewhat formalized planning process has its place even in the earliest stages.
A recent Forbes article covered the key steps to which I will apply my own spin.
Define the company’s vision
To me this is art not science. It is driven by passion not data or research. Stated simply, what do you want your company to be when you grow up. There are so many biases affecting even the most neutral founder at this stage (confirmation bias being just one) that believing at this stage is anything more than “vision” is disengenous and a bit naive. By calling it what it is, the founder’s or management’s vision, you are freed up of all of the time that goes into justifying why your vision is based on solid reasoning leaving more resources for figuring out how you will accomplish your vision.
Depending on how mature your company is, you can determine how detailed your vision needs to be. The Forbes article included these questions:
Who do you want to be in three years from now? What does the organization look like? What products/services are you offering? How many customers do you have? What problems will you be solving? What will your financial performance look like?
If you are early, early stage, some of these go beyond “vision” and these answers will come later in the process.
Plan a two-day offsite with your team
The offsite is incredibly important, and it should be noted that this is not a long brainstorming session. Each team member should be given the company vision and then assigned specific aspects to be responsible for. The problems with brainstorming have been well documented and better (and more creative) work is done by individuals tackling a problem than a group with a white board. But refining and improving ideas (and getting buy in) is appropriate for a group (and a white board). I suggest having team members (including yourself) bring short presentations on their areas. The first presentation should be the goals of the weekend and the “rules”. For example,
• Attack the argument, not the person
• Criticism is a part of the process; anything less is a waste of our time
• There are many ways to get to the same place
• Everyone here is a key player spending their valuable time to help the Company and work together, so respect for everyone
The Forbes article, which was aimed at an established company, had this possible agenda:
- CEO/Leader presents high-level review of 2012
- Each executive/dept. head/group leader presents his/her review of 2012
- CEO/Leader presents Three Year North Star followed by the proposed top initiatives for 2013. Connect the dots on how the 2013 initiatives will help the organization reach it’s goals in three years.
- Each executive/department head/group leader presents his/her proposed top initiatives for 2013.
- Break. Go do something fun (movie?).
- Prioritize top initiatives. The company will not be able to accomplish all of the proposed initiatives. Take this time to have a group discussion and figure out which of the proposed initiatives are the top three to five most important for 2013.
- Sleep on it. Once you’ve narrowed it down to the top three to five, call it a night.
- Review the top three to five initiatives and make sure that everyone feels good about what was decided. Make sure that each item is achievable during 2013.
- Start adding high-level goals that will help the organization to achieve the top three to five initiatives.
- Discuss other important items that will help your organization improve during 2013. Ideas might include: culture improvement, employee enhancement, funding strategies, etc.
- Fun team-building Activity: go-karts, rock-climbing, bungee jumping, etc.
Communication to stakeholders:
This step is about transparency and buy-in. There is nothing worse for a culture of a company than for management to go off to some pleasant locale and then return with all of the “answers” without input from those who will be implementing it. This is a piece that is often missed and is the beginning of the gulf that will grow between the hopes of the planners and the results of the actual implementation. Key stakeholders should have the opportunity to provide feedback and insure that the goals are realistic and achievable. Depending on the situation, board presentation and approval is warranted, and finally hold an all-hands meeting to present what everyone should have already been sold on. A good lawyer will tell you to never ask a question in court which you don’t already know the answer. Similarly, never present a company plan for which you haven’t already addressed everyone’s concerns.
Execute and Follow-up
The plan, objectives and metrics all need to be written down with regular meetings to track and adjust. The expression “It’s not what you expect but what you inspect…” is sound. And if what you decided wasn’t important enough to be written down and referred to, then the team will (correctly) assume it wasn’t important enough to put effort into following.