How to Improve Strategic Planning
It can be a frustrating exercise, but there are ways to increase its value.
October 2015 | by David Delaney
In conference rooms everywhere, corporate planners are in the midst of the annual strategic-planning process. For the better part of a year, they collect financial and operational data, make forecasts, and prepare lengthy presentations with the CEO and other senior managers about the future direction of the business. But at the end of this expensive and time-consuming process, many participants say they are frustrated by its lack of impact on either their own actions or the strategic direction of the company.
Start with the Issues
Ask CEOs what they think strategic planning should involve and they will talk about anticipating big challenges and spotting important trends. At many companies, however, this noble purpose has taken a backseat to rigid, data-driven processes dominated by the production of budgets and financial forecasts. If the calendar-based process is to play a more valuable role in a company’s overall strategy efforts, it must complement budgeting with a focus on strategic issues. In our experience, the first liberating change managers can make to improve the quality of the planning process is to begin it by deliberately and thoughtfully identifying and discussing the strategic issues that will have the greatest impact on future business performance.
Granted, an approach based on issues will not necessarily yield better strategic results. The music business, for instance, has discussed the threat posed by digital-file sharing for years without finding an effective way of dealing with the problem. But as a first step, identifying the key issues will ensure that management does not waste time and energy on less important topics.
We found a variety of practical ways in which companies can impose a fresh strategic perspective. For instance, the CEO of one large health care company asks the leaders of each business unit to imagine how a set of specific economic, social, and business trends will affect their businesses, as well as ways to capture the opportunities—or counter the threats—that these trends pose. Only after such an analysis and discussion do the leaders settle into the more typical planning exercises of financial forecasting and identifying strategic initiatives.
One consumer goods organization takes a more directed approach. The CEO, supported by the corporate-strategy function, compiles a list of three to six priorities for the coming year. Distributed to the managers responsible for functions, geographies, and brands, the list then becomes the basis for an offsite strategy-alignment meeting, where managers debate the implications of the priorities for their particular organizations. The corporate-strategy function summarizes the results, adds appropriate corporate targets, and shares them with the organization in the form of a strategy memo, which serves as the basis for more detailed strategic planning at the division and business-unit levels.
A packaged-goods company offers an even more tailored example. Every December the corporate senior-management team produces a list of ten strategic questions tailored to each of the three business units. The leaders of these businesses have six months to explore and debate the questions internally and to come up with answers. In June each unit convenes with the senior-management team in a one-day meeting to discuss proposed actions and reach decisions.
Some companies prefer to use a bottom-up rather than top-down process. We recently worked with a sales company to design a strategic-planning process that begins with in-depth interviews (involving all of the senior managers and selected corporate and business executives) to generate a list of the most important strategic issues facing the company. The senior-management team prioritizes the list and assigns managers to explore each issue and report back in four to six weeks. Such an approach can be especially valuable in companies where internal consensus building is an imperative.