Master the art of strategic planning with our guide. Learn how to develop a strategic plan that aligns with your goals and drives measurable results.
But don’t worry—these abysmal statistics don’t mean you’re doomed to failure. You can be in the small percentage of businesses that actually achieve the goals in their strategic plans, and we’re here to tell you how. (You’re already a step ahead of your competitors simply by taking the time to research the problem!) Over the years, we’ve helped hundreds of clients beat the odds using the steps outlined in the guide below. It covers everything you need to know about strategy planning and execution, from beginning to end, in each of the three critical phases:
Based on our experience, we know that following this three-phase approach will significantly increase your odds of getting high-quality results.So let’s get started.
Strategic planning is an organization's process of defining its direction and long-term goals, creating specific plans to achieve them, implementing those plans, and evaluating the results.On one hand, that definition makes strategy planning sound like a Business 101 concept—define your goals and a plan to achieve them. Unfortunately, the strategic planning process isn’t as straightforward as it seems, especially for large companies.
Some experts say there’s a simple explanation behind the dismal statistics mentioned above: companies are failing to strategize at all. They may talk a good game and be able to explain an innovative new mission, but they cannot articulate the processes and business models that will make it happen. As a result, nothing about their way of doing business—including their priorities, projects, or culture—changes. Months or years later, strategic leaders are left wondering why the company never achieved what was intended.
This absence of a strategic plan demonstrates why having one is so important.
The strategic planning process is about looking forward, outside the immediate future for your organization, to reach a particular set of goals. But as noted in the definition above, it also involves laying out—step-by-step—how you’re going to get there. Without this foundation in place, you’ll either continue on a path to nowhere, or get caught up in a tornado of urgent activities that may not actually benefit your organization in the long term. Neither of these scenarios will give you the competitive edge you hoped for.
There are also plenty of organizations that do take steps to fulfill the requirements of strategic planning, yet still fail to see results. These strategies fail for many reasons, including:
Whatever is preventing you from meeting your strategic goals—whether it’s the absence of a strategic plan altogether or an imperfect plan execution—it’s worth your time to address the issue.
Analysis has shown that strategic planning has a positive and significant impact on organizational performance. Most importantly, it enhances an organization’s ability to achieve its goals, but there’s more to it than that. Because strategic planning forces companies to adopt a long-term view, it helps them better prepare for the future, setting them up to initiate influence instead of just responding to situations.
It also strengthens communication between employers and employees. The participation and dialogue that takes place among managers and employees throughout the strategic planning process improves transparency and engagement on everyone’s part.
However, the same team that conducted the above analysis also noted that, for strategic planning to work, it requires some specific ingredients, including formal analysis of the internal and external environment, consideration of several strategic options, and careful consideration around whom to involve during the different steps of the strategic planning process. We’ll go through all these ingredients—and more—in the strategic planning guide that follows.
Let’s get one thing straight right now: If your organization has turned to you (or your department, a colleague, etc.) and requested that you “make a strategic plan and then report back to the leadership team when you’re done”—stop right where you are. That’s not an effective plan. Why? You need to have buy-in across your organization, and so you need leadership involvement from the beginning.
Now let’s talk about the major player needed for this process: The strategic planner. The strategic planner’s job is to align thoughts from the leadership team with a process the organization can use to execute on their strategy. If this is your role (or even if you’re just highly involved in the process), this guide will be immensely helpful as you navigate the coordination of the strategy.
The strategic planner will also need the help of a cross-functional team that involves members of the board or leadership, along with representatives from finance, human resources, operations, sales, and any other critical functions. We’ll discuss this further when we talk through the Office of Strategy Management.
This is also a good time to think about your strategy review meetings, which are a necessity for staying on track over the long haul. However, try to avoid adding yet another meeting onto everyone’s plates; instead, there may be a current meeting you can replace or redesign to make time for strategy discussion.
For now, decide how often you’ll meet and who should be involved. As for timing, there are three types of strategy review meetings:
For each of these, you’ll want to send out calendar invites in advance and make sure people know these meetings are a top priority.
Monthly meetings typically include department heads and subject matter experts. Quarterly review meetings may include department heads and upper management. Annual refresh meetings may include upper levels of management and occasionally board members.
Next, you need to work out a timeline in which you can complete your strategic plan and move through the process. Reasonable is the key word here, as that depends on your organization’s maturity level with regard to strategic planning.
Whatever the case, don’t expect this to be done by the end of the week. You’ll be disappointed.
Pro tipIt’s important to understand strategy vs. tactics. Strategy is focused on the destination and how you are going to get there, and tactics are focused on the specific actions you plan to take along the way.So while this whole process is focused on your overall strategy (i.e. your long-term goals and how you’ll achieve them), we’ll be placing a lot of emphasis on the smaller steps (i.e. practices, resources, initiatives) you’ll take to get there. Make sure your leadership team knows the difference between strategy and tactics going forward! Sometimes it is smart to keep leadership out of the tactics, but other times, you might need a strong hand to guide the organization through some details.
Now it’s time to dig into your internal and external information.
Once you’ve gathered up the quantitative data from the sources above, you’ll also want to get feedback from a number of different sources:
Combined, all of this data will help you get a better grasp on the future of the business.
Don’t reinvent the wheel—use our assortment of strategic planning templates to get your strategy up and running more easily. See our most popular templates here.
A SWOT Analysis stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. This exercise offers a helpful way to think about and organize your internal and external data.
Sometimes it is helpful to use the SWOT analysis framework to organize your interview questions for your qualitative data gathering.
Porter’s Five Forces is another tool used to find these inputs. It’s a time-honored strategy execution framework built around the competition in your industry. Who are your rivals? What are they doing? You then need to look at the threat of substitutes. Is there another product consumers could purchase instead of your industry’s product, for example, substituting natural gas or solar for coal when it comes to electricity generation?
Now that you’ve prepared for your strategy...
Pro tipYou may have researched risk assessments, core competencies, scenario planning, or industry scans as part of your strategic planning. If you’re wondering where these tools fit, they’re all relevant to this first stage of strategic planning. They help you prepare to create the strategic plan. If you have worked through one of these tools before, the results can act as inputs to help you in the next stage.
You now have all the background information necessary to create your strategic plan! But this plan doesn’t live in a vacuum—so we’ll start by revisiting your mission and vision statements and then get into the nuts and bolts of the planning process.
If you haven’t created formal mission and vision statements, this is the time to do so.
Where the mission is timeless, your vision is time-bound and more tangible.
Two tools that will help build your mission and vision statements:
If you’ve already created mission and vision statements, confirm that both are aligned with your current strategy before proceeding to the next step.
Pro tipDuring your search for strategic planning tools, you’ve almost certainly come across a Strategy Pyramid (shown below). This pyramid can be visualized in countless different ways, the order of the pyramid isn’t what’s important. The importance lies in ensuring you’ve chosen the elements in the pyramid that work best for your organization, and making sure those components are going to help you achieve strategic success.
You can use your OAS or Strategic Shift exercises to help you define your priorities and objectives—but more importantly, you need a way to manage these elements. The way to do that is by selecting and developing a strategy management framework that will bring all your priorities together in one cohesive format.
Using a framework such as Balanced Scorecard (BSC), Theory of Change (TOC), or Objectives and Key Results (OKR) is critical to your strategic success. Many management teams fail at this point simply because of their disorganization!
Note: Choose only oneof these three frameworks, as they have numerous similarities!
The Balanced Scorecard, developed by Robert S. Kaplan and David P. Norton, has been one of the world’s top strategy management frameworks since its introduction in the early 1990s. Those who use the BSC do so to bring their strategy to life, communicate it across their organization, and track their strategy progress and performance.
The BSC divides up your objectives by perspectives—financial, customer, process, and people—and themes, like innovation, customer management, operational excellence, etc. (The idea of perspectives is fully developed in Norton and Kaplan’s book The Balanced Scorecard: Translating Strategy into Action.) Here’s an example:
For an in-depth look at how your organization could use the BSC, check out this Full & Exhaustive Balanced Scorecard Example.
The Theory of Change is a logic model that describes a step-by-step approach to achieving your vision. The TOC is focused on how to achieve the change you’re looking for, and is popular amongst mission-driven organizations who are describing a change they’re making in the world instead of putting change in their pockets.
The idea behind TOC is that if you have the right people doing the right activities, they’ll affect change on your customers, which will impact your financials, and bring you closer to your vision. A great example of a this theory of change is the nonprofit RARE.
According to the Harvard Family Research Project, the steps to create a TOC are:
OKR was originally created by Intel and is used today in primarily two ways: At the enterprise/department level and at the personal performance level.
The idea is that your defined objectives and measurements help employees, managers, and executives link to and align with overall strategic priorities. Not only does OKR strive to measure whether objectives are successful, but also how successful they are.
Define your objectives, measures, and projects.
The strategic planning frameworks above are all meant, in different ways, to help you organize your objectives, measures, and projects. So it’s critical that these elements are well thought-out and defined.
Here’s how objectives, measures, and projects interact:
You have a high-level goal in mind—your objective. Your measures answer the question, “How will I know that we’re meeting our goal?” From there, initiatives, or projects, are put in place to answer the question, “What actions are we taking to accomplish our goals?”
We’ve defined each of these concepts more thoroughly below with a few business strategy examples:
Whether or not you’re using a Balanced Scorecard as your strategy framework, you’ll benefit from using a graphic model to represent your strategic plan. While many people use a strategy map (shown in the example below), you could also use icons or a color-coding system to visually understand how the elements of your strategy work together.
If you’re just becoming familiar with how strategy mapping works, this article will teach you exactly how to read one—and what you need to do to create one.
Pro tipFeeling the strategic fatigue? It’s okay! This is a tiring process—so be careful to tailor everything in this section to what those in your organization will tolerate. Putting your strategic plan into practice (our final step) is the key to making it all work during the strategy implementation plan, and getting these details 80% right in a timely fashion is much more important than getting them 100% right in a year.
You’ve made it this far—now you have to be sure you launch correctly! To do so, you need someone from the Office of Strategy Management to push that process, ensure resources are aligned to your strategy, put a solid strategy communication program in place, and get technology to keep you organized.
The Office of Strategy Management is comprised of a group of people responsible for coordinating strategy implementation. This team isn’t responsible for doing everything in your strategy, but it should oversee strategy execution across the organization. Typically, the OSM lives in the finance department—or it could be its own separate division that reports directly to the CEO.
Internal—Be sure all elements of your strategy—like strategy maps or logic models—are contained within a larger strategic plan document. (If you use strategy software, the strategic plan document will likely be contained there.) A great way to be sure your leadership team has a firm grasp on your strategy is to ensure they each have a copy of this document, and they can describe the strategy easily to someone who wasn’t involved in the creation process.
More broadly, the strategy must be communicated throughout your organization. You should be shouting it from the rooftops to keep it top-of-mind across your organization. People won’t give it a passing thought unless you engage them—so every department head should be charged with explaining how their team fits into the strategy and why it matters. For actionable tips, check out this article that highlights how you can effectively communicate your strategic plan across your organization.
External—You also need to be sure you have a plan for communicating your strategy outside the organization—with board members, partners, or customers (particularly if your organization is municipal or nonprofit). Think through how it will be shared, and which parts of it are relevant to outside parties.
In the short term—which would be your next budgeting cycle or something similar—work to structure the budget around the key components of your strategy. You don’t need to completely rewire your budget, but you do need to create direct linkages between how your resources are allocated and how those efforts support your strategy. Over time, the areas that contribute less directly to strategic goals will become clear, and you can work on gradually aligning everything you fund.
But even if your budget only extends through the fiscal year, consider how you’ll align your strategy to projects in the future. For future resource allocation, link your operations (what some refer to as the “work planning process”) to your strategy. Your expectation should be that the process of aligning your resources to your strategy can happen within year two of your strategic planning execution.
At this point, your strategy has been launched: Now you need to know whether or not you’re making progress! Here’s how to do that.
Ten years ago, you may have evaluated your strategy annually. But in today’s business environment, that’s not a feasible option. At a minimum, you should be reporting on your entire strategy on a quarterly basis, or breaking down your strategy into pieces and reporting on one of those pieces each month.
The report you use should highlight progress on your measures and projects, and how those link to your objectives. The point is to show how all these elements fit together and relate to the strategic plan as a whole.
Report on strategy progress via the quarterly or monthly review meetings you scheduled early in the process.
It’s important to note that throwing together an impromptu meeting to go over results isn’t going to get you anywhere. Instead, your strategy review meetings should be meticulously organized and accompanied by an agenda. (See this article for a sample agenda.)
Your meetings should revolve around three key issues:
Encourage candid dialogue and make sure the discussion stays focused.
Pro tipYou may want a facilitator for the first few meetings, and you may want to script a few open discussions where a goal owner explains why they are behind schedule (red) on their goal, and the business leader offers support, not criticism. This will generate the atmosphere you need for everyone to start reporting honestly and working together to achieve the organization’s goals.
To make strategy execution work, reporting is unavoidable. While you might be able to track your first strategy meeting in Excel or give your first presentation via PowerPoint, you’ll quickly realize you need some kind of software to track the continuous gathering of data, update your projects, and keep your leadership team on the same page.
If you want to learn more about the major areas of responsibility you should be covering in your strategy management process—and how strategy software can help with that—take a look at our ClearPoint tour.
Here are two additional helpful pieces of content as you move forward:
Pro tipYou’ve probably seen reference to the “Plan, Do, Check, Act” framework before. If you want to integrate this checklist, this is the time to do so. Here’s a breakdown on what it means:
Done right, strategy planning can benefit your business tremendously, but a certain degree of stick-to-itiveness is required to get the job done. (As we noted at the beginning of this guide, organizations that actually meet their strategic objectives are in the minority. Don’t worry, though, yours can be one of the success stories.) But those that develop a disciplined approach to both planning and execution have been shown to improve performance significantly.
Why is strategic planning so effective? Because it fosters healthy organizational practices that drive better outcomes. Engaging in strategic planning will benefit you in multiple ways:
Setting goals and choosing the relevant metrics to track progress toward achieving them means you always have meaningful data to reference. That naturally leads to faster, more efficient decision-making, especially when that data is readily accessible to employees at every level. Timely, valid, and actionable information is especially valuable in situations where organizations need to react quickly, so they can make the best decisions possible for all their stakeholders.
In Chapter 3, we discussed structuring the budget around the key components of your strategy. Doing so helps ensure resources are allocated correctly, and in a way that aligns with your goals. Tying the budget directly to goals also makes it easy to adjust when necessary, if circumstances change and new goals are prioritized over old. For example, a local government may have had a goal to develop a green infrastructure plan at the beginning of 2020, but then had to pivot with the onset of COVID-19. To support a new goal of developing a COVID-19 response plan, they could simply review the resources used by current projects, evaluate those projects’ priorities and budget needs in comparison to the new goal, and reallocate funds as necessary.
Having a strategic plan brings your main focus points to the forefront, so you don’t have to dig into the details of everything your organization is doing. That means there’s no time wasted analyzing irrelevant and extensive data points in strategic meetings; instead, everyone stays focused on what is most important or where improvements need to be made.
Strategic planning is intended to create a single, focused vision of where an organization is headed. When that shared vision is communicated clearly and consistently, it inspires employees to take ownership over their role in the plan, and they are typically more motivated to do their best work. High engagement will directly impact your organization’s financial health and profitability.
Having helped hundreds of organizations—for-profit, nonprofit, and local governments included—navigate through the strategic planning and implementation process, we’ve seen firsthand the many challenges that arise along the way. There’s no “typical” scenario, but there are some common pitfalls that have the power to make or break your chances of success. Below are three things you should be aware of going into the process.
Don’t expect your plan to materialize after a few meetings. The initial planning activities usually unfold over the space of several months, but strategy execution itself is an ongoing process. Anticipate devoting extensive time and effort in particular to:
Data and analytics are an integral part of strategic planning. And while it may be tempting to use all your available metrics, charts, and graphs for every business decision, doing so unnecessarily can be a detriment to the decision-making process. It’s easy to find yourself drilling deeper into data when perhaps only a high-level view of the information is needed. Avoid squandering time and energy on excessive analysis by making sure the right people are focusing on the right data and actions:
Leadership should focus on organization-wide goals and progress. Teams should focus on the individual projects and daily tasks that are helping to accomplish those goals (and the data that goes with them).
Good planning is only half the battle; the lion’s share of forward progress is in executing that plan. But the execution stage is where many organizations stumble. They aren’t prepared for the work involved with follow-through, both in terms of the time commitment and the tools necessary to support performance improvement. Strategy consultants are excellent guides for plan creation, but most offer no guidance on how to carry it out; as a result, organizations are left floundering.
It’s imperative to have a system in place that will measure and monitor your progress toward goals during the execution phase. Performance management tools like ClearPoint allow organizations to track a variety of metrics related to strategic projects, helping to maintain focus over the long term. And our team of strategy implementation experts is always available to provide guidance on every aspect of execution, from setting up an efficient management process to using our reporting tools optimally.
With the right plan in place, tools to support it, and committed leadership, every organization has a good chance of seeing their strategy come to life.
...but be sure to place a great deal of emphasis on rightsizing this process for your own organization.
Did you recently do a SWOT analysis and create new vision and mission statements? Don’t do it again. Do you already manage with a robust set of KPIs? Use them. Do you currently create reports for your board and management team? Modify them or use a strategy evaluation framework to make sure they’re focused and move on.Rather than doing everything, it’s more important to realize there is overlap between these steps. Understand how they all fit into your own strategic planning process, and then move forward with the sections you’re missing. And if you have any questions along the way, get in touch with us. We live and breathe strategic planning and are here to help!
Ted is a Founder and Managing Partner of ClearPoint Strategy and leads the sales and marketing teams.