Strategic planning is a coordinated and systematic process for developing a plan for the overall direction of an organization and the allocation of resources to optimize future potential. Many businesses start out with only an idea and a desire to succeed. Sometimes it works; more often, it does not. According to the US Small Business Administration (SBA), the main reasons businesses fail are the lack of a solid plan and the lack of adequate capital. These two reasons are not unrelated, especially in tight economic times. After all, if you don’t invest in a good plan for your business, why would you expect someone else to invest in your business?
Strategic and business planning is not just a box to check on your to-do list. Strategic planning is the foundation for everything: your business identity, your marketing and sales, your operations, your management approach, and your funding. However, excuses abound for not doing it. Even well established businesses need to stand out from their competitors to grow and improve their margins.
Regardless of your business size or how long you have been in business, if you’re willing to invest, you may be someone who could leap-frog your competition and change the nature of our economy through new processes, products, or services.
Planning is much more than just a team building exercise, but one of the benefits of using the inclusive planning process outlined below is building a strong, cohesive management team. Feedback from my Strategic Planning Workshop is that the process brings out the differing management perspectives and structures them into a unified strategy.
My six step process to build an actionable strategic plan is the basis of my Strategic Planning Workshop.
Orient participants – Build a common understanding of the planning process and frameworks that provide insight into your business. This step defines the general framework for the process and explores alternatives to more fully develop different aspects of the process. Members of the planning team should come from the functional units of the company (finance, marketing, operations), so they may have different perspectives based on their area of specialty. The end-game of the owners is a major driver of strategy.
Review your current mission, goals/objectives – Establish the starting point and examine alternatives that can add value to your current plan. Whether your current goals and objectives are loosely defined or well defined, they define your business and how it is run. If you aren’t sure where you are, you’ll have a difficult time defining your direction. I use a customer-focused three question exercise to define your current business and then look at the next 12 months.
When you define your business from a customer perspective, it may make a difference in your success. Growth comes from focusing on customers and consistently delivering value to them. Even though strategic plans generally cover longer periods of time, a solid plan for the next year is important for having any confidence in a three to five year plan.
Prepare your situational analysis – Identify market segments, competitors, capabilities, core competencies, and opportunities. Rather than trying to tackle large, broad markets, define your niche and preferably define it to your competitive advantage. To position yourself against your competitors, gain an understanding of who they are and what their market strategy is.
When you consider your capabilities, you need to perform an honest Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (SWOT) analysis. All your core competencies should be strengths, but does each one add value? Are they unique and sustainable? How important is each competency to your customers? Finally, identify and evaluate your perceived opportunities. Preparing a situational analysis can be an intense activity, particularly if you discover that you are not well aligned with your customers. If you aren’t well aligned, you are left with the choices of finding new customers, developing new products or services that match customer needs, or becoming a statistic. During the past two years we have seen some major examples of companies not responding to changing customer needs and desires or to changing Government regulation.
Formulate your strategy – Brainstorm; develop industry scenario; complete strategic assessments; formulate strategies, mission statement, goals and objectives. “First comes thought; then organization of that thought into ideas and plans; then transformation of those plans into reality.” – Napoleon Hill, author of Think and Grow Rich.
This is where you differentiate yourself and find ways to beat the competition. Some companies have done poorly in the down economy, but others have grown and flourished because they had a strategy that responded to the change. Small businesses have an advantage over their larger rivals because they can move faster to respond to change and to implement new ideas. This step definitely requires thought, but the rewards can be substantial. Remember many of today’s large businesses were founded during a recession. Other small businesses proved that they had value and were acquired by a larger business.
Prepare your implementation plan – Define action plans, schedules, and budgets. Action without a strategy is misguided. A strategy without action is wasted. What specifically needs to be done to accomplish your goals and objectives? Who needs to do it, and what other resources will they need? When does it need to be done? The actions need to be broken into measurable steps according to a schedule and assigned to specific people. How are you going to fund your plan? Your implementation plan is your basic reality check. If the schedule is unrealistic or if you don’t have the necessary people, resources, or funding; what adjustments can you make to achieve your goals?
Prepare for monitoring – Establish metrics and a monitoring schedule. After you have established what needs to be done, you need to define how you are going to measure progress toward meeting your goals and objectives and how often to do so. The monitoring needs to be sufficiently often that corrective action can be taken before you miss critical dates. Monthly progress reviews and quarterly strategy reviews may or may not be sufficient. Establishing minimum, target, and stretch goals may also be helpful. Remember that the plan is not chiseled in stone. If your reviews show that something is not working – change it.
I generally recommend using the SCORE business plan outline that was developed for start-ups but can be readily adapted for established businesses. The questions answered during the planning process feed directly into the sections of the business plan: Business Description – what do you do? Products/Services – what do you sell? Marketing Plan – how are you going to sell it? Operational Plan – how will you perform daily operation? Management Plan -how will your business be managed and by whom? and the Financial Plan – how will you finance the business?
As you move through the steps of developing your strategy and preparing your plan, it is important to keep your end-game in mind. Although no one can guarantee the success of your business, good planning builds a solid foundation for you business and minimizes the risk to you.