Four Critical Questions for Strategic Planing

Strategic planning has become a buzz phrase in the past ten plus years.  There are several varieties of strategic planning approaches-all are designed to help teams and organizations focus on the most critical aspects of reaching a desirable future.  Some processes are more complex and some are more simple.  To me the key is how well the strategic planing process is led.  Often, the team leader is not the best candidate to actually lead a team through a strategic planning process.  Therefore they should delegate that task to another on the team who can be more neutral and who likes planning.

Over the years I have had the privilege of teaching strategic planning as a process to many teams.  I have led many teams through the strategic planning process.  I am actually one of those people who likes planning in general.  But I also realize that unless the whole team contributes you will never have the best possible plan and you will never have total ownership of the plan-which also means you will lack the necessary creativity to solve the most challenging problems. My aim to help everyone engage is to keep the process simple.  To do this I think there are four main questions that every strategic planning process must answer.  By posing these four questions you can take even the most complex process and simplify it in such a way that you can keep even the most cynical engaged.  Here they are-with some brief explanations:

1. Where are we going? This is the question of vision.  Vision is a mental picture of a desirable future fueled by passion.  Every team has to know where they are headed-where is true north.  And that destination has to be compelling.

2. Where are we now? There is no way to know what it will take to get somewhere if you do not know where you currently are.  This is the question of current reality or situational analysis.  This includes both the hard and soft data of your reality.  It includes the cold hard facts of your current situation (remember, reality is your friend) and the environmental factors such as attitudes, feelings, and perceptions.  There is no holding back on this one-if you cheat here you will end up with the wrong solution steps.

3. How will we get there? This is the question of your critical path.  The critical path is the identifiable problems and/or opportunities that will take you from your current reality towards your desirable future.  These have to be the most significant and  most leveraged solutions you can conceive of in reaching your vision.  Don’t forget that every agreed upon solution must include roles (who is the identified point person for executing the solution), goals (what is the target to know if the solution actually worked), tools (what resources are available and necessary to execute the solution) and time (either an end date or an event date for execution) to be executed well.

4. What are we learning along the way? Notice I did not ask, “How are we doing?”  Many teams focus only on results at this point of the process.  And results are important-but only to the degree they help us learn what to do next.  To learn well you have to look at results-but to only focus on results you actually don’t have to learn.  That is why I like for teams to focus on learning-through results.  If you have a true learning team with a clear vision-you will have an effective team.  There is much talk today about how three and five year plans are no longer viable-the culture changes too rapidly.  That may be true-but if you remain a true learning team you can adapt your plan whenever you need to.

Four questions-two where’s, a how, and a what.  If you can keep these four questions in mind when you lead the planning process you can be an effective team planner-and keep your people engaged.

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