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Getting Started with Strategic Planning

A strategic plan is the organization and clarification of what the leadership of a group actually intends to do over a designated period of time in order to secure and distinguish the group's position in the marketplace and to stimulate appropriate growth.

To be successful, the plan must be connected to a strong implementation process designed to assure that it will actually be used on a day-to-day basis, and that the planning effort will be sustained year to year. 

Developing and actively following a strategic plan is not a luxury; it often drives the key differentiation between competing groups. A strategic plan, well-developed and well-administered, is the great accelerator of success for all organizations of every type.

A strategic plan should be:
- drafted by whomever is responsible for accomplishing a measurable set of results;
- approved by whomever has authority for its enactment;
- an accurate reflection of both the capabilities and willingness to perform of those who are asked to carry out the strategies and actions that are intended to bring about success.

Universal Results to be Sought from a First-Time Planning Process

1. Development of a permanent cyclical or "rolling" planning process which provides for a continuous review of the group's long-term strategic intentions. To succeed, the process requires that no functional objective or strategic initiative will be named unless:
a. There is a commitment to actively pursue and accomplish the initiative within an agreed time frame.
b. There is a clear measure of success.
c. There is a clear acceptance of "ownership" which combines commitment with accountability.

2. Formalization of previous "ad hoc" practices into predictable structured methods resulting in:
a.  "Agenda driven" management.
b.  Cyclical review of critical elements such as:  
     - market case
     - client satisfaction
     - project, production or engagement results
c.  Clearly defined individual roles and duties measured on a cyclical basis.
d.  A definition of quality which can be measured for each aspect of the operation, as well as for the resulting products and services.

3. The replacement of "soft" and "hard" solutions with "durable" solutions.

To be successful, the plan must be connected to a strong implementation process.

Understanding what should be done is only a partial solution. Groups often reach conclusion as to how to resolve a problem, but time goes by without action. An initiative that everyone agrees should be taken, but that the group as a whole does not enact, is a soft solution. A typical soft solution is a general agreement that it is a good idea to ask the clients if they are satisfied with the service provided to them.

When a group adopts a mechanism that causes a set of immediate actions to deal with problems on a one-time basis, this is a hard solution. This approach will produce results without any assurance that the underlying condition will not cause the problem to reappear. A hard version of the solution is to have everyone contact each of their recent clients and report back to the group at a special meeting as to the results of the conversations. 

A durable solution assures that a process is put in place that both resolves the original circumstance and provides an ongoing measure, review, and report. A durable solution might require that a set of pre-established questions be asked of each client at the completion of each engagement. To assure compliance, the group includes a presentation of the results of the interviews as a standing item in the regularly scheduled managers meeting. 

Common Errors to Avoid

During the planning process, it is important to avoid the following common errors:

1.  Planning the detail before the direction is set.
2.  Plans without owners.
3.  Solutions without measurable results.
4.  Actions without a schedule.
5.  Leaving intended actions out of the plan.
6.  Including actions which the group does not intend to pursue.
7.  Allowing personality to obscure process.
8.  "Telling" when "Asking" is the way to assure commitment.
9.  "Asking" when the answer has already been decided.
10.  Assuming that what is unspoken is understood.
11.  Not writing down what has been agreed.
12.  Not reading what has been written.

Mar​c Paul Chinoy is president of The Regis Group, Inc., a management consulting practice based in Leesburg, Va. This article is an excerpt from his book Getting Started: An Introduction to the Strategic Planning Process.

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