October brings pretty leaves and football. The kids are back in school. People are back from summer vacations filled with renewed energy and new ideas. At companies around the world, energy levels are high. And everywhere, everywhere, people are in meetings to talk about next years’ plan.
Goals are debated, adjusted, re-thought, and compromised. Competitive pressures are re-assessed. Strategies are argued, attacked, and defended until they are adopted, trashed, or (politely and politically) put aside for later consideration.
Growing out of these strategies comes a flurry of activities - initiatives, core programs, tactical defenses, pilot projects, launch calendars, and process maps. These spawn budget meetings where deciders and providers lock in combat, jousting with tricky questions and artful answers, often astride unspoken agendas.
This description might seem a bit cynical, but if you’ve spent more than a few seasons in the planning pit as I have then you know that it’s also pretty accurate.
I’ve had many opportunities to observe and be a part of planning activities in a wide variety of companies – long term plans, intermediate term, annual plans, project plans, strategic plans, advertising, marketing, new products… you name it.
I’ve seen varying levels of complexity and sophistication around the planning process. I’ve seen how the process and results are shaped by the company’s culture - how at some businesses planning is frighteningly dictatorial and at others the process is paralyzed by inclusiveness.
Regardless of an organization’s style, planning can be measured against the very simple notion of what planning is all about: What do we need to do to get where we want to go?
In the smartest companies, planning flows from a clearly articulated and agreed upon set of goals. Strategies are created to achieve these goals and then (and only then) are the tactics and activities conceived and funded. All important projects and spending are screened through the lens of those core strategies. A clear sense of purpose provides discipline to the process.
But there are too many times when planning is driven by some vague idea of what needs to be accomplished. Tactics are selected simply because they are familiar or comfortable to the planners. This practice creates “sacred cows,�? programs that are done simply because “we’ve always done it that way�? and therefore remain unquestioned.
Even those smart companies that subscribe to goal-driven strategic processes can be at risk for this. Major or core strategies often escape critical review and debate and can therefore easily become sacred cows. There’s a kind of strategic myopia that can develop, and it can cause planners at any level to slip into auto-pilot.
I suspect anyone with some leadership experience can relate to this phenomenon. To prevent the drift that can occur in even the best environments, call a time-out. Go back to bedrock, and examine that fundamental question that faces every organization:
What do we need to do to get where we want to go?
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Examine this question in the context of the three basic elements in the business environment: Company, Customer, and Competition. Ask yourself: Where are we better and where are we worse… and what of it really matters?
In other words, what do you do better than competitors (your competitive advantage)? What does your competition do better than you? And what REALLY matters to your customers? What drives their decision-making?
If you ask yourself that at the start of every strategic planning activity --short term or long term, small department or enterprise wide, big or small budget impact – you’re certain to be more focused and yield better results.
Why? Because it’s outside-in thinking. It puts the decision in the context of your customer and competition.
By its very nature, this makes strategic planning a data-driven activity. You can’t assume to know how customers make decisions or how they perceive you and your competition – you need data. Sure, many organizations will order up a SWOT analysis during their annual planning. Planners may agonize for days, even weeks, and finally agree on a chart that expresses the organization’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. And then planners often do what they were going to do anyway.
Traditional tools and processes like this are less effective because it’s still inside-out thinking. It just organizes what we think about ourselves and confirms what we already knew. It doesn’t require data that tests our assumptions about where our growth will come from.
The main reason I’m involved with Vennli is that it drives a planning discipline that gets right to the core of strategy: Where are we better and where are we worse and what of it matters? And, when you can answer that from the perspective of your customer, the “what should we do to get where we want to go?�? becomes immediately clear.
The customers’ voice drives strategic decision-making and planning, and that’s why organizations are seeing amazing results. This year, Vennli clients are experiencing a different kind of fall strategic planning – one that is a lot more focused, informative, and productive. Consider how you might bring the customers’ voice into your own strategic planning to really drive growth in 2016.
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