Does the idea of strategic planning make you want to clap your hands or roll your eyes? Whether you are weirdly excited or super cynical, a healthy dose of strategic planning can be an extremely helpful process for your organization. 

But many of us have stories about strategic planning gone wrong:

  • Meetings that drag on and on with no conclusion or direction
  • “Planning” that involves filling in the blanks just to please the CEO or Executive Board
  • Pesky individuals who pull everybody off track with random issues and ideas
  • Fear-based planning that results in continuous loop of research and feedback and/or keeping everything the same
  • A wish list of desired outcomes that leaves everyone feeling defeated and overworked before the ink is even dry

So how can you avoid these common pitfalls? By knowing why strategic planning matters and how to go about it in the best possible way. Here are three tips to help you get the most out of your strategic planning experience (or make it way less painful).

1.) Start at the top

Leadership participation is the first key to strategic planning success. If your top people aren’t invested or involved, there’s no way you’re going to get everyone else on board. If those at the top aren’t leading the charge, all of your hard work will be wasted.

Start by getting your key leaders together for a high-level session to set or re-affirm the organizational vision, mission, and goals.

If you’ve gone through this process before, you may just be re-affirming your commitment to these things or making minor adjustments. If this is a new process for you, do some research before you start. It’s not easy defining who you are as an organization and what is really driving your purpose. Turning gut feelings into polished mission/purpose statements can be a huge challenge and difficult questions will need to be asked and answered.

Things to consider:

Your vision shouldn’t be a statement that you make once and frame to hang on the wall. Instead, think of your vision as just what it sounds like. Close your eyes and picture your company three years from now. What are you doing? How are you doing it? Who is participating? How successful are you at selling your ideas and implementing them? Get gritty on what you want your organization to look like.

Your mission or purpose is more like a statement you make and frame. It should be a single idea that drives your decision-making and motivates the team and inspires action. For a thought-provoking look at purpose, watch Simon Sinek’s TED Talk.

Doing a bit of work beforehand will make the planning process easier for everyone.

2.) Beware of templates

When used correctly, templates can be extremely helpful. By all means, use them to get the conversation started and/or guide you through the process. Just don’t let your template box you in, especially if you’re borrowing one that was created for someone else.

If you live and die by the template, you run the risk of only focusing on certain aspects of the business. And using the same template year after year could actually hold you back rather than push you forward.

The best strategic planning involves creative thinking from a variety of stakeholders, with many different considerations based on your unique situation, current model, and changing market conditions.

Running down a template and filling in the blanks may allow you to say you did strategic planning, but did you really? Or did you just create a pretty document that no one will ever look at or use?

3.) Bring in the pros

If the thought of getting started with all of this sounds difficult and/or terrifying, consider bringing in an outside consultant and/or facilitator. At first glance, this may seem like a waste of time and money, but the yield on investment here is big.

Using a facilitator has several key advantages:

  • Provides structure and accountability
  • Keeps things moving on track—and on time
  • Allows everyone (including the person who would typically lead) to fully participate
  • Puts everyone on a level playing field
  • Ensures all voices are heard
  • Prevents individuals from dominating or hijacking the session
  • Provides a neutral, third-party presence to encourage collaboration and mediate conflict

A skilled facilitator will be able to:

  • Ask tough questions and draw out answers
  • Maximize participation and keep momentum going
  • Broach difficult subjects without fear of repercussions
  • Maintain a safe environment for constructive criticism and differing opinions
  • Summarize and clarify goals, information, and feedback
  • Provide planning format, action items, and meeting follow up

Sounds amazing, right?

Just make sure you’re not relying on your facilitator to be part of the team or make key decisions. A facilitator’s role is help your group make progress and reach consensus, not to inject advice, wield influence, or be a project manager.

No pain, no gain?

Strategic planning can feel overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to hurt. Even if you’ve never gone through the process before, there are ways to make it happen without feeling the burn.

Getting your team together for some high-level conversations and big-picture decision making is the critical first step.

If you want the ultimate experience, consult with a strategic planning expert on what needs to happen next and find yourself a first-rate facilitator who can make the whole exercise efficient, effective, and as much fun as humanly possible.

Strategic planning enthusiasts will get a little extra thrill out of the process if they don’t have to drag everyone into it kicking and screaming. Plus, they’ll have the added joy of knowing this is just the beginning. Step two involves creating tactical plans to carry out and implement the vision and ideas you just committed to.

You can almost hear the collective hand clapping (and eye rolling!) from here.


This is the third post in a series of blogs about strategic business planning. For more information on this topic, read Is Strategic Planning Really Necessary?, and The Strategic Planning Process: Wise Investment or Waste of Time?. Subscribe to this blog to receive new business and HR-related posts each week.

Photo by Atholpady

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