Strategic plans that fail to engage and align cross-functional leaders generally result in poor execution. Limited engagement often happens when companies expedite strategic development and manage communications and buy-in after developing the plan (a typical status quo approach).
Our experience has shown us that bringing a change management orientation to strategic planning is highly effective. While this process may take a bit more time upfront, it ultimately requires significantly less time overall. This transformative approach leads to quicker uptake of the plan and the organizational alignment and gusto required for immediate execution. A change management-based approach is particularly effective for large, complex, multi-stakeholder organizations that have struggled to define inspiring growth goals in the past.
While we always believe in customizing our approach for each client, we maintain six foundational principles to transformative strategic planning that have helped clients align their organization and develop transformative strategic plans:
Let’s examine how these foundational principles bring engaging strategies to life.
Top-down, bottom-up is embedded throughout Level5’s strategic planning approach – we believe in this approach wholeheartedly. This philosophy starts with engaging an organization’s Board and Executive team to give a top-down description of what the organization’s strategic direction is, providing clarity and guidance for all stakeholders. On the other hand, by engaging VPs and Senior Managers, we gain a bottom-up operational perspective. Bottom-up ensures that the plan is actionable and that key decisions aren’t being done to Senior Management, but rather with Senior Management.
Our perspective on top-down and bottom-up also applies to insight generation. A robust fact-base is necessary for any strategy discussion. We consider both broad category and competitive data (top-down) as well as granular data, such as transactional data, consumer research, internal process data, etc. (bottom-up) when developing this fact base. This multi-faceted approach gives us a holistic understanding of our clients and their long-term strategic opportunities.
It is critical to have clarity from the Board and Executive team on what strategic success and desired outcomes look like. Our strategic narratives – descriptions of the company’s long-term goals, direction and purpose – help to maintain this initial clarity. Narratives equip the leaders who are tasked with strategy implementation with the required top-level direction and permission to create broad and impactful change. Through many strategic planning engagements now, we’ve seen the power that these narratives have in facilitating an organizational change management mindset while galvanizing decision-makers.
Tasking senior leaders with granting (or receiving) permission facilitates joint ownership over the strategic planning process. Joint ownership over the desired endgame and strategy creates the organizational commitment and gusto required for execution. Tasking different groups (e.g. the Board, Executives, Senior Managers) with different roles also establishes clear governance lanes while reducing risk-averse tendencies. Joint ownership creates greater opportunities to address pain points and successfully define important metrics and KPIs.
It’s important to understand an organization’s pace of working and then push that in a manageable way – we say Level5 works at our client’s pace +1. The pace must be manageable, but just outside of an organization’s comfort zone. As an organization’s comfort zone expands, we step up our pace. This progression improves our client’s ability to manage change over the long-run and increases the processes’ efficiency.
While it’s good to always look for opportunities to push the pace, it’s also critical to ensure that stakeholders have the requisite soak time to internalize strategic ideas and fully confirm that they are aligned to the strategic direction.
A common fact-base helps to align decision-makers to a common understanding based on what’s most important (rather than thinks and feels). Besides using this resource during strategic planning discussions, we also reassess the fact-base and, if required, update the fact-base during a pre-determined mid-plan review. This way, strategy is not static or resistant to changing dynamics. An up-to-date fact-base also helps to maintain objective decision making (vs. individual opinions and beliefs).
The notion of updating a fact-base and pivoting is not just restricted to the mid-plan review, however. If there are significant shifts in your operating environment, it is essential that they are considered, and adjustments are made to the fact-base and plan (as applicable). A pre-existing fact-base helps companies quickly adapt their strategy when realities change (as they have with COVID-19).
Perfection is the enemy of great strategic plans. Our driving goal is to facilitate and develop great, actionable ideas – not perfect ones. The planning process begins by focusing on where the organization wants to go rather than how it will get there. By thinking of end-state goals first, an organization can stretch its notion of what can be accomplished. Many other strategic planning processes potentially limit growth by being too focused on the “how” vs. what the organization will become.
While all of these principles facilitate organizational alignment and actionable plans, the first two principles are most important. An aligned ‘top-down bottom-up’ fact-base is critical to level-set future discussions. The strategic narrative tool has been proven to increase alignment and facilitate step-change growth by helping companies gain permission and clearly define what they want to accomplish. In our next and final strategic planning article, we will flesh out the notion of top-down bottom-up and this powerful growth-driving tool.
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