Feb 092012

The Best Laid Plans, Part IV

The Best Laid Plans, IV

I have had a bunch of good comments from readers about the three posts in this series about creating strategic plans (input phase, analysis phase, output phase).  Many of them are leading me to write a fourth post in the series, one about how to make sure the result of the plan isn’t shelfware, but flawless execution.

There’s a bit of middleware that has to happen between the completion of the strategic plan and the work getting done, and that is an operating plan.  In my observation over the years, this is where most companies explode.  They have good ideas and capable workers, just no cohesive way to organize and contextualize the work.  There are lots of different formats operating plans can take, and a variety of acronyms to go with the formats, that I’ve heard over the years.  No one of these formats is “right,” but I’ll share the key process steps my own team and I went through just over the past few months to turn our strategic planning into action plans, synchronizing our activities across products and groups.

  • Theme:  we picked a theme for the year that generally held the bulk of the key work together – a bit of a rallying cry
  • Initiatives:  recognizing that lots of people do lots of routine work, we organized a series of a dozen “move the ball forward” projects into specific initiatives
  • Communication:  we unveiled the theme and the initiatives to ALL at our annual business meeting to get everyone’s head around the work to be done in the upcoming year
  • Plans:  each of the dozen initiative teams, and then also each team/department in the company (they’re different) worked together to produce a short (1-3 page) plan on a template we created, with a mission statement, a list of direct and indirect participants, important milestones and metrics
  • Synchronization:  the senior management team reviewed all the plans at the same time and had a meaningful discussion to synchronize the plans, making edits to both substance and timing
  • Scorecard:  we built our company scorecard for the year to reflect “green/yellow/red” grading on each initiative and visually display the most important 5-6 metrics across all initiatives
  • Ongoing reporting:  we will publish the scorecard and updated to each initiative plan quarterly to the whole company, when we update them for Board meetings

As I said, there’s no single recipe for success here, but this is a variant on what we’ve done consistently over the years at Return Path, and it seems to be working well for us.  I think that’s the end of this series, and judging from the comments I’ve received on the blog and via email, I’m glad this was useful to so many people.

Feb 022012

The Best Laid Plans, Part III

The Best Laid Plans, Part III

Once you’ve finished the Input Phase and the Analysis Phase of producing your strategic plan, you’re ready for the final Output Phase, which goes something like this:

Vision articulation.  Get it right for yourself first.  You should be able to answer “where do we want to be in three years?” in 25 words or less.

Roadmap from today.  Make sure to lay out clearly what things need to happen to get from where you are today to where you want to be.  The sooner-in stuff needs to be much clearer than the further out stuff.

Resource Requirements.  Identify the things you will need to get there, and the timing of those needs – More people?  More marketing money?  A new partner?

Financials.  Lay them out at a high level on an annual basis, on a more detailed level for the upcoming year.

Packaging.  Create a compelling presentation (Powerpoint, Word, or in your case, maybe something more creative) that is crisp and inspiring.

Pre-selling.  Run through it – or a couple of the central elements of it – with one or two key people first to get their buy-in.

Selling.  Do your roadshow – hit all key constituents with the message in one way or another (could be different forms, depending on who).

The best thing to keep in mind is that there is no perfect process, and there’s never a “right answer” to strategy — at least not without the benefit of hindsight!

People have asked me what the time allocation and elapsed time should or can be for this process.  While again, there’s no right answer, I typically find that the process needs at least a full quarter to get right, sometimes longer depending on how many inputs you are tracking down and how hard they are to track down; how fanatical you are about the details of the end product; and whether this is a refresh of an existing strategy or something where you’re starting from a cleaner sheet of paper.  In terms of time allocation, if you are leading the process and doing a lot of the work yourself, I would expect to dedicate at least 25% of your time to it, maybe more in peak weeks.  It’s well worth the investment.

Jan 192012

The Best Laid Plans, Part II

The Best Laid Plans, Part II

Once you’ve finished the Input Phase (see last week’s post) of producing your strategic plan, you’re ready for the Analysis Phase, which goes something like this:

Assemble the facts.  Keep notes along the way on the input phase items, assemble them into a coherent document with key thoughts and common themes highlighted.

Select/apply framework.  Go back to the reading and come up with one or more strategic frameworks.  Adapted them from the academic stuff to fit our situation.  Academic frameworks don’t solve problems on their own, but they do force you to think through problems in a structured way.

Step back.  Leave everything alone for two weeks and try not to think about it.  Come back to it with a fresher set of eyes immediately before starting on the final outputs.

Reality check.  Go back to one or two of the constituents you originally met with to begin laying out your thoughts to them – “try them on for size” – and get the unfiltered visceral reactions.

Next up:  the Output Phase.

Jan 122012

The Best Laid Plans, Part I

The Best Laid Plans, Part I

One of my readers asked me if I have a formula that I use to develop strategic plans.  While every year and every situation is different, I do have a general outline that I’ve followed that has been pretty successful over the years at Return Path.  There are three phases — input, analysis, and output.  I’ll break this up into three postings over the next three weeks.

The Input Phase goes something like this:

Conduct stakeholder interviews with a few top clients, resellers, suppliers; Board of directors; and junior staff roundtables.  Formal interviews set up in advance, with questions given ahead.  Goal for customers: find out their view of the business today, how we’re serving them, what they’d like to see us do differently, what other products we could provide them.  Goal for Board/staff: get their general take on the business and the market, current and future.

Conduct non-stakeholder interviews with a few industry experts who know the company at least a little bit.  Goal: learn what they think about how we were doing today…and what they would do if they were CEO to grow the business in the future.

Re-skim a handful of classic business books and articles.  Perennial favorite include Good to Great, Contrarian Thinking, and Crossing the Chasm.

Hold a solo visioning exercise.  Take a day off, wander around Central Park.  No phone, no email.  Nothing but thinking about business, your career, where you want everything to head from a high level.

Hold senior staff brainstorming.  Two-day off-site strategy session with senior team and maybe Board.

Next up:  the Analysis Phase.

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