It was around 10 PM one snowy February night, on a desolate road somewhere between Chicago and Iowa, that it finally registered with me why it can be a challenge to get business leaders excited about my favorite professional topic. I was scheduled to be speaking at a seminar in Dubuque the next day, but my wife and I and the two consultants who were running the seminar had gotten stranded in the Chicago airport during a snowstorm and were now trying to drive the remaining distance to Dubuque. As we drove, I was discussing the next day’s topics with the Educational Consultant, along with subjects that we felt should be added to the curriculum in the future. The consultant had mentioned that they were looking for new topics for their Management series, and he asked if I had any ideas for new accounting subjects that I would like to develop and teach, a natural question with my being one of the few accountants on the organization’s faculty. I replied that I would be happy to come up with some ideas, but that I felt that there was an even more important area that need to be addressed: Strategic Planning. I expected the consultant, a university professor who works extensively with businesses, to agree with me, and I was puzzled when my suggestion was met with a discouraged sigh. “Of course it is important; probably the most crucial deficiency we are seeing in organizations today,” he answered, “but you would have to disguise it as another topic. One thing that we have definitely learned is that no one wants to go to a seminar on strategic planning. They are tired of being told that they are doing everything wrong.”
When you ask most organizational leaders what comes to mind when they thing about strategic planning, they will often mention a couple of the popular strategy buzzwords, such as Scorecards, KPIs, SWOTs, Action Items, and Variance Analysis. More than anything else, however, they will at some point reference the three pet topics of strategic consultants: Mission, Vision, and Values. If they have gone through a formal planning process, then they have studied at least a couple of those topics and have likely spent time writing those statements for their organization. There is a reason, of course, that those statements are so popular. If done properly, they can have a significant impact on aligning the organization around common goals. The unfortunate fact, however, is that many business leaders also confess that after going through an entire planning process, they still have no idea what specific purpose those statements were supposed to have, and often those statements were forgotten soon after the process ended. This is not necessarily a result of a faulty process, however, but rather of poor communication and explanation of it. If you were to read three different books on strategic planning, you will probably see all of those topics mentioned in each, but likely with different definitions and applications in each book. As a result, many planning processes end up focusing on redefining terms and trying to figure out how to fit the organization’s ideas into the specific format and definitions espoused by a particular book or consultant. This leaves many leaders discouraged and intimidated by the idea of re-examining their organizations strategic plan. They are convinced that it will mean again hearing that their previous process was worthless and that they have to start over again. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be that way. The terms and formal processes can be valuable, but they are also only guides to help communicate key ideas and there is an alternative to allowing them to prevent an effective planning process. Strategic Planning should be one of the most rewarding and exciting parts of leading an organization. It is an opportunity for a leader to share their dreams and vision with the rest of the team and take the first steps toward achieving it. Instead of organizations missing out on that opportunity, there is a way to reframe the process to make it easy for any organization to follow. If leaders can simply focus on answering three simple questions first, they will find themselves with a great foundation on which to build an effective strategic plan.
What shared passions and dreams have brought us together?
Organizations often spend extensive time on drafting value statements and then working to make sure that those values are taught and instilled to all team members. The limitation of that approach is that it assumes that everyone will eventually be willing to sacrifice their own short-term goals for the organization’s needs. In reality, leaders often simply decide themselves about what their team should be passionate and then get frustrated when those values aren’t shared or followed. The better alternative is to spend time with your team to learn about their personal passions and desires and how those have brought them to your organization. If you can find the common passions that people share and communicate how the organization’s activities support those passions, then you have a much better opportunity to keep people engaged and excited. Not-for-profit organizations usually do a slightly better job than businesses of discussing values and passions, but even they usually fail to reconcile incorporate those values into designing and implementing programs and procedures. Business leaders often feel like money will be the strongest common motivator among their team, but research has consistently shown that to have only limited impact. The most transformative organizations go beyond that to find out how their teams want to impact the world, develop those individual passions into shared organizational goals, and then give their teams the opportunity to make those a reality.
What focus do all of our organization’s activities share?
Passions are a great starting point, but they also have to be connected to tangible actions for the organization to move forward. Other organizations may share similar passions those of your team, but that doesn’t mean that you necessarily share the same mission that they do. As you look at your team, resources, and operating environment, where do you feel that your organization has a unique opportunity to impact your community and region? What value do you feel like your organization can provide to its customers, members, and stakeholders? How do you want your organization to be differentiated from its competitors? Those questions all help to shape a singular mission on which your organization can focus. This mission should be idealistic enough to connect to your team’s passions, but also pragmatic enough to guide daily actions and decisions. A strong mission should give your team members a common goal on which they can focus every day that will help them demonstrate the true potential of the organization. It should also ultimately point them to the clients or public that they are serving. Many organizations love to mention their strengths in a mission statement. If so, it has to be connected with how those strengths will help your organization better provide value in its services.
How do we want our organization to be described in the future?
Building and running an organization can be difficult and often mundane work. No matter how inspiring a mission is, it is natural for both leaders and team members to grow discouraged or tired at times as they try to carry it out on a daily basis. Leaders often try to overcome this personally by dreaming about the future toward which they are working. The problem is that they usually fail to adequately share this future with their team. Everyone likes to be part of building something meaningful and exciting, why not give them that opportunity in your organization? There are many different things that can be shared in a vision: types of customers, types of services, team composition, locations, size, or even contributions. However, there is no specific formula for what types of details need to be included in your organization’s vision. What is important instead is that the vision is tangible and realistic enough for the team to be willing to work to reach it, and that they can see how that envisioned future will support their passions. If you can help your team picture a future for which they are willing to work and sacrifice, then even the difficult times can become an opportunity to make your organization stronger and take one step closer to realizing your dream.