Sticking Points for Strategic Planning

GlueToday we are back looking at the strategy end of the cycle, the topside, and how to usefully document it. This is a curly question at best as there are many templates of strategic plans and strategy documents and there is no Mr Right.

However I think it’s fun to take a greenfields approach and think afresh about might be most practical for its readers. To address this I’ve posed the four sticking points at which the writers of a decent strategy template often go wrong. These questions are nothing new and they apply to all documents, but I – possibly in my innocence – think that calling something a “strategic plan” or a “strategy” (I’m using these terms interchangeably) often gives the author an excuse to leap-frog this question. So I’m going against convention to question what makes a useful strategy document.

Sticking point 1: What is the purpose of this document?

Well guess what, for me it is NOT a document that every John, Mick and Larry can use to get a lovely summary of the history of the organisation or to get a detailed understanding of the tasks that the organisation is implementing that year. No siree – you have public facing materials and project plans or standard operating procedures for that.

No, the purpose of an organisation’s strategy is to clearly set out:

  1. Where it wants to be (whether that be 5, 10 or 20 years down the track) – let’s call that ‘B’
  2. Where it currently is – let’s call that ‘A’
  3. How to get from ‘A’ to ‘B’.

Obviously there will be different ways of documenting each of these components, but that’s not the point. I think that anything extra and flowery around the edges is just confusing the purpose of the document. I also know that government departments often have a statutory requirement to make a ‘strategy’ or ‘plan’ public and therefore there is the perception that additional narrative is required. Well, maybe this is splitting hairs, but I don’t think there is anything wrong with having a document with two sections – the narrative section, and the ‘strategy’ (section). I just think that it’s just conceptually confusing when you have a ‘strategy’ that has lots of things bundled into it.

Sticking Point 2: Who of its many readers should be the target audience of the document?

Yes indeedy… This is not a mere matter of putting your hand in a hat and pulling out names written in texta on slips of paper. This is probably the most important question of them all and once again can often be confused by legislative requirements.

‘Strategy’ has different definitions depending on what dictionary you are looking at, but one of the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary definitions is nice and simple. A ‘strategy’ is “a careful plan or method’ – so a strategy should be the key tool used by the strategy implementers to make it happen.

A ‘strategy’ is not a description of your strategy for external people (although by all means, share it with them if appropriate for your organisation), but its primary audience should be the people who actually have to do the work. A strategy may be quite high level – especially compared to a plan – but it must be usable by the people who have to implement its tactics. If the implementers cannot follow a strategy then it will not be implemented. It’s as simple as that!

Sticking point 3: What do you include?

Mostly importantly – not everything! If this is a strategy document, it has to be strategic and I would argue useful at an executive level, not at a managerial level and certainly not at an operational level. There are many perspectives on what to include, but I’ll include my current thoughts here (which may change quickly!) with the same numbering as for Sticking Point 1. I’m going to ask you to be ready to swap around your hats and turn your head inside out a bit.

  1. Where do you want to go? If you look at my model for Superior Business Analysis, you’ll see that the strategic level includes business goals, principles and constraints. It is business goals that are most important for defining where you want to go and tracking your success. However, this model is about how to reach your business goals and it does not currently go the step above that to pulling out your business goals from your business vision and objectives. I’ll leave that to the experts, but I personally rather like Program Logic to a point. Maybe I should have a go at exploring that in a future post…
  2. Where are you currently? To be useful this needs to be defined in the same terms and at the same level as where you are going. It is also useful to include the business constraints here.
  3. How are you going to get to where you want to go? Well this is the crux of the strategic plan… these are your tactics for the next few years at least. I see there are three ways of looking at this. (A) The outcomes you want as the years pass … a program logic matrix is a great way of representing this and SMART goals can be attached to them. (B) The external-facing projects you need to do to implement those outcomes as the years pass (but think high level). (C) The internal governance arrangements required as the years pass to implement these outcomes. Additionally, this is where business principles need to be included.

Sticking point 4: How do you lay it out?

Visually people, visually. Show how the traceability works. One of my bugbears is complex documents that are written once and never referred to again. A strategy should be the driving force behind an organisation – make it easy to understand, easy to refer to, easy to implement. Keep that in mind when you’re completing the formatting and you should do it well.

So that’s my current take on how to write a Strategic Plan. Simple, easy to read and focussed on where you’re going. The rest is description – not strategy.

What do you think?

Am I being too simplistic and narrow-minded in my definition of a ‘strategy’? What else do you think should be included in an organisation’s ‘strategy’ document?

What do you think?