The First Rule in Strategic Planning


What is the most important point in conceiving any strategic plan?

Is it being clear on your long-term strategic objectives (ie vision, mission and values)? Well, that's certainly important as you must know where your destination is.

Is it having a good understanding of your external and internal environments? Well, being updated on your unique operating context is definitely key.

Is it about involving key stakeholders in the process? Well, getting buy-in is definitely vital in ensuring the success of any strategy.

While the above factors do figure largely, what is probably more critical is ensuring that the pieces all fit in nicely. In other words, whatever you start in a strategic framework must have a finish that ties in with your earlier intentions.

A good strategic plan is one that also considers the capabilities, resources, timeframes, and operational realities of an organisation. Aspiring to dethrone Youtube or Amazon sounds exciting but have you truly mapped out the road to get there - without those rose-tinted glasses?

This is exemplified by two Chinese sayings:

1) "有头有尾" which means that there must be both a beginning and an end, and

2) “纸上谈兵” which illustrates the act of discussing strategies only on paper (and not implementing them on the ground).

Steven Covey's Seven Habits has also articulated this nicely with his philosophy of beginning with the end in mind.

What does this mean in practice?

For a start, you need to be sure that whatever framework you have chosen to adopt can be met realistically on the ground. Consider the 5 Cs of your organisation: namely its cash, culture, characters, capabilities and circumstances.

Having 100 KPIs measuring every single breath that your organisation takes may sound good on paper, but is likely to be a nightmarish exercise for everybody! Similarly, a start-up business staffed by straight-suited bean counters is unlikely to cream the Golden Lion awards.

Next, you need to check for coherence in how the individual strategies and tactics fit into the grand overarching framework. Is there a feedback mechanism to allow you to check how far you have arrived against the original plan? What are the intermediate steps taken to ensure that each brick laid goes into building that masterpiece?

Measuring outcomes vis-a-vis targets and objectives are also important. Whatever you have stated as a bold goal needs to be authenticated by its results. Don't set yourself up for failure by proclaiming an audacious ambition that can never be reached. At the same time, don't under project your targets - we need to be stretched to truly achieve our best!

Finally, it is important to read, refine, and redo your plan a couple of times before presenting it to your stakeholders (management, board, or funders). Strategic planning is a thorough and painstaking process, and it is easy to get lost in the woods. If you're tired at the end of a long working day, take a break first before tackling the task. Once you're refreshed, dive back into the details of that onerous ocean.

Like a jigsaw puzzle, every piece in a strategy should fit into the bigger picture. Only then, can a true masterpiece emerge.


(Of course, implementation is critical too, but that's another story altogether)

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