Many private business owners may cringe at hearing such a “high falutin’” term as “strategic planning”, so you can call it anything you like. In our office, we call it “sitting around the kitchen table”. Where you do it, when you do it, how you do it, who does it and what you do are all up to you. WHY you do it should derive from a common reason: because you owe it to yourself, your family, your staff and your customers.

The first, and major, hurdle to overcome is the WHEN. It is too easy to convince yourself that there never is time…neither in a boom economy (too busy) nor a bust economy (too broke) or an average economy (too busy waiting for it to boom or bust). A solution is to make a standing periodic commitment to this process. Annual may be too frequent, but certainly bi-annual or tri-ennial is a minimum. You might incorporate annual, smaller planning sessions that have more specific, less grandiose objectives.

The WHO depends, of course, on how large a small business you are. For a larger organization, a Planning Committee could be struck from owners and senior managers to determine the WHAT, WHERE and HOW. Departmental managers not selected for the committee still might draw in to particular meetings when their area is being discussed. Someone needs to be the person in charge, the one who takes ownership of moving the process along. If the business lacks such expertise, then a facilitator might be engaged to fill that gap. Even if you are a one-person operation, you still should undertake this kind of exercise, as a Personal Retreat, as I do three times per year.

The WHAT needs to find a balance between time views: short, medium and long. The short view can focus on specific products, departments, processes etc. The time commitment for this is shorter and involves fewer people at one time. The long view is probably the most difficult because it involves the hardest, and oft-times the most fuzzy, questions. Here, the Planning Team needs to dedicate some time, and be comfortable, with a session on “great gobby what-ifs?” For instance, what if our major product line is side-swiped by technological change or unexpected competition? Again, if the talent for this is lacking within, this may be where an external facilitator would be useful.

The HOW offers many variants. Short view planning can be conducted by way of periodic zero-base review sessions. This involves a rolling program which cycles through the various aspects of the business, deconstructing each and drilling deep. In one of my organizations, we have mind-mapped all of our processes and programs. They have been colour-coded into groups and, over a four year cycle, each group takes a turn for zero-base review, in which sacred cows can be challenged, revised or slaughtered.

Long view planning is suited to a full blown retreat involving more time commitment, many people and all aspects of the business. A variation on this might involve a sequential series of such meetings, spread over time. This approach mitigates the impact on day-to-day operations, but requires the ability of everyone involved to “switch gears” easily from micro operations to macro strategic.

This zero-base review tends to drill-down deeper than the triennial strategic planning process. In effect, the two processes are like two overlapping planetary orbits around the “business sun”.

The agenda should start with the planning document from the previous session, if there was one. There are resources out there such as templates for the do-it-yourselfers. “IFAC” has a 25 page document in checklist form. Or, if you Google “business plans” you will see endless hits linking to planning software, like “Business Plan Pro” from Palo Alto Software. Our firm also has a “Business Planning Checklist” that is the basis for a one or two day planning session.

We sometimes employ a “Seven Minute Drill” exercise to hone creative thinking in the midst of day-to-day operations. Each such event is focused on one particular matter. The group has 7 minutes (using an egg timer!) to brainstorm ideas for a particular problem. This process ultimately helps to build creativity muscles amongst the team.

At its base level, planning meetings are about causing senior people to come together and communicate. The day-to-day crush of operations can obviate that from happening. However, technology can come to the rescue! The firm can set up a secure, locked-down website using, for instance, Google Docs, or its own intranet blog site using WordPress. A little outside help may be needed to set these up, but after that, they are very facile. An early-riser senior manager can pose issues (“threads”) onto the system in the morning, and the night owl colleague can respond late at night.

We have added mind-mapping software to take this to another level. Here, some “problem” arises and is posted to the site. A mind map is created for the problem which attempts to identify all of the issues, potential solutions, etc. Each cell on the mind map is alphanumerically coded. A Word file also is posted to the site, along with headers for the mind map code and the related description. Participants to the site study the mind map, identify the issues they are most concerned or passionate about, and speak to them accordingly. Once everyone has weighed in, the “fill in the blanks” approach likely will time-efficiently galvanize what everyone already agrees on, and where the core issues remain. In a round-the-table environment, much time gets wasted in these situations as individuals hold the floor and pontificate at length on issues that, it turns out later, in fact aren’t controversial around the room at all.

The WHERE depends on the WHAT and the HOW. Long view planning is suited to the external retreat approach to remove the distractions of the workplace. Zero-base review can be conducted in-house.

The strategic planning process isn’t complete when you check out of the hotel. Back home, someone needs to be in charge, and be given the time resources, to polish it to a final draft. “Carpe Diem” is also important. It is too easy to return from the retreat and become immersed in day-to-day operations. The Law of Diminishing Intent bears here… the longer you put off completing and executing the Plan, the less enthusiasm you will have for it.

At one of our engagements, we chose to write the planning document in Excel, not in Word. We had columns to specify for each objective, strategy and tactic:

  • Department involved
  • Person responsible
  • Prioritized importance by date of required execution
  • Review periodicity

Using the Excel powers of filtering and sorting, the master document could be restructured, for instance, to report actions required:

  • Across the company by timeline
  • By person responsible
  • By department
  • By “achieved” vs still outstanding, etc

In closing, for inspiration, we can fall back on the old quote “Those who fail to plan, plan to fail”. Pick a planning style that works for you and get to it. You won’t regret it.

Article published: Feb 2013