What Is Strategic Planning?
Ever been on a hike? Not the kind you can do with a water bottle and some yoga pants, but the ones where you trek through the wilderness for days at a time? It’s exhausting, mentally taxing, and extremely rewarding. But if you don’t have the right supplies, don’t know your route, or over-exert yourself, you might end up stranded and needing rescue. All the work you do to make sure that doesn’t happen is akin to strategic planning.
Much like a tough hike, your organization needs a strategy if it’s going to succeed. You need to know what you’re trying to do, how you’re going to do it, and how to adapt to unexpected hiccups. There’s no strategy without proper planning.
A definition of strategic planning
So what is strategic planning?
Put simply, strategic planning is when you take your organization’s more abstract goals and turn them into a concrete strategy. The resulting plan includes your organization’s mission, vision, and values. It also details the long-term goals you need to hit, as well as how you’ll get there.
For example, let’s say your organization was created to improve the lives of IT technicians from multiple industries. That’s a great goal, but how are you going to do it? When you take time to figure out your strategy, you might come up with something like “we’ll improve the lives of IT technicians by creating simple tools that anyone in a company can use to fix simple IT problems themselves.” From there, you might determine that your company’s values involve the democratization of technology, better technical literacy, and so on. You can then use this plan to guide everything your organization does.
Strategy vs tactics
Before we continue, it’s important to distinguish between strategy and tactics. The two are similar enough to seem interchangeable, but they aren’t. A strategy is something that guides everything your company does in a way that’s more concrete than your mission statement. Whenever you’re faced with a difficult decision, the strategy is what you refer to for guidance. Does the action you’re about to take support or hinder it?
Tactics are a step down from strategy on this ladder. When your strategy is figured out, tactics are how you carry it out. For instance, say you work in an organization that digitizes educational texts in the public domain. Your mission is to make important texts available for students at a cheap rate. Your strategy is finding books in the public domain, turning them into attractive ebooks, and selling them through a proprietary platform. A tactic might be starting a guerrilla marketing campaign on college campuses.
5 frequently asked questions about strategic planning
With a proper strategic plan, you can easily communicate where the business is going to just about anyone. That includes internal teams, external collaborators, investors, and more. When you draft your plan, you’re putting a bunch of decision-makers in the same room. At the end of a strategic planning session, they emerge with better alignment and a clear understanding of the business’s goals.
Strategic planning is done through three broad steps. First is collection, during which you get as much data as you can before you start drafting up the plan. That data can come from employees, competitors, stakeholders, and external experts. Next is mapping. This involves solidifying the business’s vision, figuring out objectives, and creating an action plan. Finally, there’s the reviewing stage. After you put your strategic plan into action, you should review it regularly to make sure it reflects the reality of your business and make changes as needed.
At the very least, you should check in on your strategic plan once per quarter. It makes sense to review your strategy as you’re going through earnings reports, KPIs, and so on.
There are a few ways strategic planning can go wrong. First, without proper leadership, a planning session can quickly turn into a muddled tug-of-war between various ideas. You need someone who can make decisions and cut through the debates. Next, if you pay attention to the wrong performance indicators, you can end up with a strategic plan that doesn’t match the reality of the business. Finally, make sure your communication channels are airtight. If everyone isn’t kept in the loop in a timely manner, you might miss out on key insights.
First, strategic planning isn’t just for large businesses. Organizations of every size can greatly benefit from a strategic plan. Next, strategic planning isn’t a top-down process. Sure, someone in a leadership position has to make a decision at some point, but the plan won’t work if they don’t get insight from people on the ground. Finally, a strategic plan isn’t some rigid document that kills creativity. Quite the opposite. Knowing more about what your business plans to do is great for generating new ideas and better initiatives.
The top 5 benefits of strategic planning
Now that you know what strategic planning is, what’ll you get out of it?
When you define your organization’s strategy, you create a base for every business decision that needs to happen. Does a director need to decide where to allocate resources? They can refer to the strategy to see what the organization’s priorities are. Team leads are trying to prioritize tasks for their reports? Again, the strategy has the answers they need. Product roadmaps, marketing campaigns, even the metrics for your customer support team can all be based on your strategy.
An accurate assessment of your organization
Part of the strategic planning process is analyzing your organization. That means going through processes and performance metrics for every team, evaluating the lifecycles of multiple projects, even polling every employee. With this kind of research, you’ll get an accurate sense of what your organization is great at and where there’s room for improvement.
A solid brand and identity
Branding doesn’t end at your letterhead. Brand and identity are intertwined. If your organization was a person, who would it be? By turning your goals into a strategy, you’re not just making plans for where you want to end up, but you’re deciding how you’ll do it along the way. You’re figuring out what your organization stands for, what your brand means, and you’ll send clear signals to partners and competitors.
An easy way to communicate
Imagine you’re trying to court investors, and they ask you how you intend to spend the money they give you. Would you rather have to come up with something every time you go through an investment round? Or would you want something solid you can base your answer on? Think of the strategic plan as the primary reference for your business decisions, and it becomes that much easier to communicate where the business is going to just about anyone.
A boost to productivity
If your business was a boat, wouldn’t you want everyone rowing in unison? Without a strategic plan, you might deal with rowers going at their own rhythm, scratching their heads, or even rowing the wrong way! With a plan in hand, you can easily show every team how their efforts can contribute to the organization’s goals. And if you involve them in the process, they’ll feel like they have more influence on what’s happening in the organization at large.
The 3 phases of the strategic planning process
So, now that you know what strategic planning is, you’re ready to start. You’ve collected every scrap of paper and digital file so any and all conversations about strategy are at your fingertips. But how do turn this pile into an actionable strategy?
No matter what method you end up using, there are a few general steps that you need to follow if you want a strategy that gets buy-in across your organization.
If you’re about to start planning your strategy, you’ve probably already done some of this work. This phase is when you gather as much information as you can to inform your strategy. It’s crucial that you diversify the channels this information comes from.
- Ask your employees. This includes long-standing employees and new hires — those fresh eyes can tell you a lot.
- Observe what your competitors are doing. What are the strategies of your competitors? Examine their marketing, their execution, and their product. Get a trial for their product — if one is available — and snoop around a bit. What can you learn from the choices they make?
- Get data. Are there flagship studies in your field? Something like Slack’s State of Work can be invaluable when defining your strategy. It’ll tell you about your potential users, their needs, and their habits. If you already have users, talk to them. Their perspective is crucial to your strategy.
- Meet with stakeholders and leadership. Strategic planning isn’t a one-person show. When you start, figure out who should be kept in the loop. Meet with them regularly to share insights, and you’re likely to find new ideas you hadn’t even considered.
It’s important to set a stopping point for this phase; it’s all too easy to get lost in all the information that’s out there. Set a strict deadline and adhere to it.
Now that you’ve got all this information, it’s time to actually map out your strategy. Take everything you’ve learned and turn it into something you can refer to. Here’s what you need to remember when mapping your strategy:
- Vision statement: Where will your company be in ten years? What is your ultimate goal, your vision for everything your company is doing? Your organization was likely born out of a recognized need or gap in the market. So what does the organization need to become in order to satisfy this need?
- Mission statement: What is your company trying to do, and how will it achieve this? Where the vision statement is your utopian ideal of what you want the organization to become, the mission statement is grounded in the present.
- Objectives: What are the milestones the company needs to hit? A funding round worth millions of dollars? A certain number of employees? Offices in multiple countries? Like any growth plan, your strategic planning work needs objectives to stay grounded.
- Action plan: How will you achieve your objectives? Start by thinking about your teams, and what they can do to help the company reach its goals.
- Retrospective plan: The market isn’t static, and your strategy shouldn’t be either. Plan out deadlines for looking back on your strategy so you can adapt it to a change in the market and your organization.
Once the planning part of strategic planning is complete, there will be an ongoing review process. As the saying goes, “no plan survives first contact with the enemy.” You may not be fighting a war, but your organization will be continually challenged. There will be roadblocks, competitors will challenge you, and you will have to adapt to unexpected changes.
Determine metrics by which you can measure your strategy’s effectiveness. Is it your number of users? Revenue? Company size? Something else? Then, decide on a schedule for reviewing your strategy. If you’re a fast-moving startup, you might want to do this as frequently as once a month. If your organization is larger and more established, once per quarter is probably sufficient.
Be ready to change your strategy on the fly. For example, if a technology you rely on is made obsolete, you might have to completely shift the way you do things.
Strategic planning and the team coordination workflow
A workflow is a map for getting work done. The team coordination workflow is all about keeping your team aligned, on task, and hitting deadlines. So unless you’re undertaking your strategic planning endeavor alone, working out the kinks in your team coordination workflow can be a huge boon to your strategy. Here’s how it’s done:
- Eliminate unnecessary meetings: Sometimes, there’s no substitute for getting everyone in the same room — or at least in the same Zoom call. There’s energy in these meetings that can be crucial for kickstarting a strategic planning process. But you don’t need to meet every time there’s an update. Prioritize asynchronous communication, and you free everyone up to do their best work.
- Make information and updates public: You might feel the temptation to keep your strategic planning sessions hush-hush until the strategy is finished. But that makes it difficult to keep your team in the loop, and you’re potentially closing yourself off to ideas that could radically transform your strategy. Keep important documents public in a project management tool like Asana or Trello, and communicate in public channels like Slack.
- Integrate your tools: If the people you’re working with each live in their own tools, it’s going to be incredibly difficult to share updates and information effectively. When you use a workflow management solution like Unito, you give everyone the ability to work where they’re most comfortable without sacrificing visibility and alignment. You could sync Asana tasks to a Slack channel, Trello cards to a Jira project, and more.
Plant your flag
When your organization has a defined strategy, things become clearer. You’re planting a flag and broadcasting that you know what you’re doing and you have everything you need to accomplish your goals. By taking the time to do proper strategic planning, you help employees identify with your mission, you make stakeholders confident in your vision, and you set yourself up to change the world.