Several years ago, I was an executive in a software company where the CEO fundamentally believed the company did not need a strategic plan. It was his belief that everyone knew what we were all about and the direction we were headed and that would be good enough to insure success.
As a leader in the company I wanted to support the CEO and, at the same time, I was committed to having an overall game plan for my team. Instead of debating the merits for a strategic plan for the company, I decided that if our department had a plan, achieved some “stretch targets” that we set, and met or exceeded the executive team expectations; we could demonstrate the power of a strategic plan.
What We Did
I started by gathering my management team to determine what we wanted to achieve with a three-year strategic plan for our services department. We invested an evening of collaboration and came to the conclusion that we needed to answer these four key questions:
- What was our services department’s current position?
- Where did we want to be at the end of the three-year planning horizon?
- How did we plan to get from where we were at that moment to where we wanted to be in three years?
- How would we track our progress once we had a three-year plan?
To determine our current position, we identified the need to ask our key stakeholders about how they viewed our products, our people and our services. These stakeholders included employees, partners, clients and prospects. We also documented a list of our key competitors and decided to hire an outside firm to conduct research on what they were doing and how we performed relative to them in our markets.
We then thought about where we wanted to be at the end of our plan. We established goal areas and specific targets (we called these objectives) around revenue, gross margins, customer satisfaction, and client retention/turnover.
Once we had identified where we wanted to be in three years, we had to determine how to achieve these targets. There was a lot of discussion about which people on our team had to be present in order to get their commitment or buy-in on the plan and strategies/actions that we would agree to undertake. It became clear to the handful of my direct reports that we needed to have sixteen other people that played key roles on our team attend our planning meeting.
Then we tackled the toughest part, tracking the progress. The single biggest problem my direct reports experienced with prior planning efforts, in our organization as well as others where they worked, was lack of impact earlier plans achieved. The team agreed that the primary reason for this shortfall was a lack of keeping the plan in the forefront and, that if we were going to make this plan a “living and breathing plan” we would have to all make a commitment to reporting progress as well as making mid-course adjustments based on what we learned as well as changes in the market, industry and our company’s direction.
Finally, we decided that for all of us to be involved in this planning effort we would ask a member of the corporate HR team to facilitate our planning meeting. My direct reports believed that, if I led this meeting, there would be less chance for me to really hear what other participants were saying and that I might not have been able to be as objective as they believed was needed for the best possible plan. I must admit this was a tough decision for me to make yet, in hindsight, it was one of the best things I did. Not only was I able to more actively engage but I learned much more about the challenges and possibilities that I was unaware of as well as some very intriguing leverage points for us to maintain our aggressive growth plans.
By the end of the process we walked away learning a few things. First, this plan gave us an overall roadmap on which to base decisions. As Yogi Berra once said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” While not profound, the plan provided guidance on which road to take when we arrived at those forks.
Another important learning was that the plan was dynamic and not static. We used this plan to track progress against key objectives and we made adjustments as conditions changed. These adjustments included modifying objectives/strategies as well as adding new ones and dropping existing ones.
And the biggest learning I walked away with was that divisions, departments and teams might consider taking the time to develop a “strategic plan” as an overall framework to establish targets and monitor progress against those targets.
As a result of my department’s efforts and the success we saw, word began to travel throughout the organization. Eventually more and more departments started creating their own strategic plan and this got the attention of our CEO who did end up taking the whole organization through the strategic planning process.