He avoided eye contact, looked uncomfortable and squirmed in his chair, when I asked “How would you like to proceed?”
This wasn’t a cold call and I wasn’t a boss or an instructor asking pointed questions. I had been invited to a potential client’s office to discuss strategic planning. Our conversation was lively, engaged and with lots of shared ideas. And yet, when it came to taking a next step, the prospect was somewhat paralyzed. “I need to think about this” was his subdued response.
Bad salesmanship on my part? Perhaps. But I think something more complex was at play.
This person knows that he needs to put together a larger plan; he knows that he’s spending time in the urgent and unimportant and not getting to the important activity. He has an idea of what his future should look like and intuitively he recognizes that involving other people is worthwhile. And yet, he is… uncomfortable.
Where do you start? Who do you involve? If you involve people, do you raise expectations unreasonably? What if they aren’t the right people? What if they say stupid things? What if the discussion spins out of control? What if you get into the middle of it and don’t know what to do next?
What if .. what if.. what if….
I believe in the keep it simple mantra. A planning process does not need to be complex. It does need to be thoughtful. Here are my four key steps:
Step 1: Get clear on your why. Why do you exist? What is the compelling, emotional reason that you get out of bed in the morning? (please… do not say to make money or worse, add shareholder value… blech!)
Step 2: Dig deep to understand what stands in the way of achieving your why. These are often fundamental contradictions that are barriers to achieving your why.
Step 3: What do you need to do to address your barriers? What key strategies or big initiatives should you start that will address your fundamental contradictions?
Step 4: What do you need to do in the next 3 months to implement your key strategies or big initiatives? You can only eat the elephant one bite at a time.
I believe that diversity of perspective is incredibly valuable, so I tend to advocate more minds, rather than fewer. To get to ‘why’, involve your leaders, employees, suppliers, trusted advisors and key customers. You will be fascinated by their view. When tackling barriers and establishing strategies involve your leaders, key employees and trusted outsiders. Do not fear the outsider viewpoint, it will only add depth. When you start defining actions, make sure the people who are expected to execute are involved. No one likes being handed at to do list!
It is extremely difficult for the leader of an organization to also lead a strategic planning discussion. Bring in a neutral party to lead the discussion. When you have what I like to call a ‘facilitative strategist’, stupid becomes wisdom and everyone benefits. Conversations stay productive and constructive.
The facilitative strategist leading your process should have a robust understanding of a strategic planning process and should know where they are headed. In times of doubt, a discussion with the group about what’s next generally resolves those concerns.
The great thing about a strategic planning process is that you take it one step at a time and can re-evaluate direction after each step.
My advise to anyone fearing the planning process – find a facilitative strategist that you trust, look them in the eye and say – let’s pick a date! You will be pleasantly surprised at the energy and creativity that will result.