In the last blog post, I discussed how necessary it is to set strategic context repeatedly during the early stages of implementing a new strategic direction. Reviewing the core concepts of strategic thinking and digging deep into long-range goals at the start of detailed planning, at decision-making milestones, and when results are visible is vital to ensuring a new strategic direction is well understood and embraced. In this blog post, I want to expand on how to bring strategic thinking to life by actively connecting, problem-solving, and planning in detail.
During strategy creation, the planning team explores and digests a wide array of factors that could impact its ability to evolve and thrive. By the end of the planning process, many of these insights, assumptions, realities, and trends have been deeply embedded in the goals and have not been not widely shared - even during the introduction of a new plan.
While these factors are core to the strategic thinking, they don’t play the title role in the future direction, yet they do play important parts in the overall strategy story. Without them, the story could take an unintended course and fall apart. Let me use an example to illustrate how this can happen.
A Hypothetical Example of Connections Lost
The strategic plan for VAS Inc. includes growth goals and depends on geographic expansion. The plan defines specific growth targets over the planning time frame (2, 4, and 6 years out). To achieve these growth goals, a strategy is developed to expand into specific cities, states, and regions. Directional numbers to support these goals were fleshed out, and staffing projections were defined. Budgets for additional overhead and marketing expenses required were rationalized against revenue projections and an investment plan was prepared.
The final plan and projections looked promising and the VAS board approved the new strategic plan. VAS staff was excited to see how they would soon be part of a larger, more successful regional presence. New teams were hired and the first set of resources were allocated to get them up and running. However, after a year, revenue targets fell behind plan and doubt began to dampen attitudes.
Was the strategy wrong or was the implementation flawed?
An evaluation of the expansion plan revealed a key strategic planning assumption was overlooked.
During the planning process, the planning team identified a core piece to VAS’ current success was their ability to retain clients and grow revenue within each account. When asked, clients reported the “customized approach to onboarding” and “ongoing high levels of customer attention” as important to their decision to stay with VAS, even when competitors offered a discounted service. This customized approach had developed organically over time but now was codified into four key steps that made each new customer feel they had found a true partner in their success.
During VAS’ strategy development process, the planning team evaluated potential new markets for growth, unmet demand, and indications that VAS’ customer-oriented approach would be valued by potential customers. This research went into building the strategic plan and setting the growth goals. However, when the strategy was rolled out, the teams were primarily hired from the local markets, given their sales goals and resources, then let loose “to make it happen.”
The executive in charge of this growth strategy never discussed the planning assumptions, including how VAS’ legacy processes not only differentiate it, but was also part of how sales goals were set. The new territory teams were new to VAS, and although the territory manager that was a long-term VAS employee, she had not been part of the strategic planning process and was not aware of the analysis and assumptions that established the goals. No one ever connected the dots for her and provided the strategic context she would need to drive strategic performance.
Once this gap was identified, a change was made in the next year’s planning process. Folks from customer service were asked to join the new market teams to explore and deepen the understanding of the onboarding process and account management discipline. This quickly revealed how market intelligence naturally produced by the highly customized onboarding system and provided additional sales and service opportunities for the sales team to follow up on.
Because of this lost connection, it took an extra year to get the new market teams and client-centered sales process on track, but in the end, going back and connecting fully with the strategic assumptions paid off as VAS was able to grow market share by replicating their processes just as their original predicted.
Stop and Make Those Connections
The energy unleashed during a creative planning process stimulates a boost in morale and productivity. However, to sustain this momentum and to ensure strong performance against the strategic plan, the authors of the strategic plan must slow down and seek out linkages between current planning and strategic thinking. There are numerous instances when members of the strategic planning team can do this if they are aware that they need to.
Now that you are aware, look for opportunities to identify and connect tactical discussions to strategic thinking by pointing out how an issue under discussion is key to the strategic thinking. Link long-range goals to the here and now. Tweak your view of strategic leadership from driving action to connecting and guiding strategic execution. Your organization will accelerate performance against plan, and you will build a highly desirable competency in your team: strategic thinking.
Not sure your plan is built on strategic thinking?