Great strategic planning happens when everyone can ask “What’s my part?”

If strategic planning isn’t relevant to everyone, it is useless.

When clients ask us to facilitate strategic planning we most often work with the senior leadership team, or in the case of non-profits, the Board of Directors. Usually, staff at other levels have been consulted (lightly) for their input into “where we are going” but the executive team, whose job it is to think ahead on behalf of their company, does the core envisioning of the future.

Much has been written about the efficacy of strategic planning efforts overall. Experienced consultants describe reasons why planning efforts consistently fail to make a difference in the success of an entity to sustain itself and thrive over time. For example, Ron Ashkenas says that strategic plans go off the rails due to passive aggressive disagreement, fear of confrontation, and a lack of persistent top-down demands. Erika Andersen attributes plan problems to a failure to appropriately vet plans against realityRick Smith wisely wrote that actions in organizations are guided less by strategies “thoughtfully crated within wood paneled conference rooms” and more by “speed, unpredictability, and sweeping change occurring on a dynamically evolving battlefield.”

After hundreds of opportunities to help clients get lift as a result of their planning process, after watching them closely as the plan manifests itself into daily operations (or not!), I’ve noticed 4 key guidelines that make strategy plans relevant, helpful, and meaningful:

  1. The best future vision is shared

While senior leaders may be the folks best poised to synthesize and capture plans for tomorrow, they should do so as potent representatives of the people who work for them. For this to happen, senior leaders must talk to employees at every level about their ideas, needs, business realities, and hopes before convening in a planning retreat. These conversations shape leaders’ impressions of what the front-line needs, and why they need it, while simultaneously creating strong feelings of ownership in each employee. If employees have been able to react to and comment on future plans, they feel connected to the organization’s newly unfolding story. This kind of involvement deepens employees’ interest in the plans when launched and encourages them to be accountable for their key part in execution.

  1. Execution–what to do–should be thought through for every role

We know that binders on dusty shelves do nothing for businesses and organizations trying to succeed. The translation of thoughtful plans into meaningful action happens through countless conversations about “what does this mean to me.” Each employee (yes, even the very front line) should know how their effort contributes synergistically to the whole, why it matters, and what success looks like. Managers should initiate these conversations throughout the organization, vigilantly aware that such discussions are fundamentally two-way interactions, rather than one-way pronouncements. To behave at work in a way that contributes to the future ideal, each employee will benefit from multiple chances to discuss what they think and feel about the actions being implemented, and even better, from having a say in how things get done in their area.

  1. The future becomes part of daily conversation

We still believe that senior teams convening in what we call an Advance (we prefer the term to “Retreat”) is a powerful way to devote precious thinking to the question of the future. But planning cannot stop there. Leaders at every level need to find ways to engage in conversations often, with everyone, about the plans and what they mean within daily tasks. Successful plans come alive because they are seen and discussed regularly by employees as a way of staying focused, aligned, and clear.

  1. Plans are visually illustrated

Words only go so far. Images capture bold steps for the future and organizational dreams with coherence and emotion that words lack. Visual diagrams, photographs, simple charts, and mind maps are all powerful conveyers of stories about where we are headed. These tools help employees remember so they can act more quickly. Leaders who work with artists or illustrators to depict plans find themselves infinitely more able to keep the story alive with people over time.

Planning processes will continue to respond and change as companies cope with blistering market fluctuations. Nonetheless, co-creating a shared future will remain an important task in organizational life, even if the time horizon is 12 months versus 12 years. It is the translation of these plans into daily reality that engages the hearts and minds of employees. Planning may start with senior teams in the privacy of a designated session, but it only finishes when the day-in day-out work of people in the trenches connects to future success tangibly and purposefully. To make plans real, leaders would do well to practice the skills of telling stories, gathering input, and connecting the dots over and over and over again.

What is your approach to planning the year ahead?

Jim Morris