I have been around strategic planning in various forms over most of my professional career of more than 32 years. I have seen all sorts — from participating back in the day in multi-month annual corporate affairs at the Wall Street bank and the insurance company where I worked, to assisting clients with analysis for their own purposes, and more recently, our own internal efforts here at KCIC.
I would generalize that these well-intentioned efforts were, at best, relatively ineffective and, at worst, a complete waste of time. At times I participated in strategic planning “off-sites” that could last for several, very long days and that were so contentious, I feared we would leave blood on the walls. Typically we ended up with lists comprising dozens of items — all of high priority. Sometimes we would work out quarter-by-quarter areas of focus that stretched out a couple years into the future. We would write long explanatory documents. And more often than not, the discussions around strategic direction would be anything but strategic — and more focused on personal agendas and grievances. Inevitably, after a brief honeymoon, everyone went back to business as usual and the strategic plan would be forgotten.
The reason the process so often was useless had nothing to do with the people involved or any lack of seriousness of purpose. It’s not even that the right questions were not being asked. Rather, I’ve come to believe the crux of the problem is that the questions were asked in the wrong order. Indeed, I believe that when tackled in the right order, a meaningful and effective plan will almost inevitably result.
I will at this point acknowledge the big debt I owe to the authors a handful of books that have had a huge impact on me: “The Advantage”; “Good to Great”; “To Dream Again”; “Essentialism”; and “The Power of Habit”.
The categories of question that a meaningful strategic plan must address fall into the following categories:
Existential Questions: Why do we exist as a company? What do we do? How to we compete? What are our core values?
Dream Questions: Before there can be goals, there have to be dreams, and from the dreams, long-term goals, and then, medium-term goals.
Priority Questions: Sure – there can be a long list of projects that need to be achieved before reaching a goal or a dream, but a list of 67 top priorities essentially means there are no priorities. What is the small handful of things that are most important … this quarter, this week and today?
Most planning cycles are ineffective because they do not consider all three sets of questions, and they tackle them in the wrong order, or all at once. For example, it is impossible to meaningfully address future goals and dreams without first addressing the existential questions of who you are as a company. And it is impossible to meaningfully consider what are the most important priorities if you are not straight about your shared dreams and goals for the future of the company. The reason for the abject failure of the “blood on the walls” strategic planning offsite is that big-personality senior executives were trying to address what was most important, without first addressing critical existential questions … or even bothering to dream about a future.
In my opinion, in most organizations, it’s too much to try and deal with all three sets of questions in a single session. Not only is it a lot to talk about, but I think it’s better to allow time for thought and reflection as you work through the questions:
There is a pervading and liberating clarity that comes from being clear about the answers to these questions, getting the answers on one page, and then widely promulgating them throughout an organization. I can hardly exaggerate my admiration for Patrick Lencioni and his book, “The Advantage”, which champions the notion that organizational health is deeply rooted in clarity around these questions. The questions are easy to ask, but hard to answer: Why do you exist as a company? What is your core purpose? What is it that you do – in a single sentence? What is your secret ingredient or combination of ingredients that makes you better at what you do than the competition? What are the handful of core values that lie at the heart of your corporate identity? Once you are straight on these answers, other questions flow much more easily, from who you hire, how you evaluate employees, how you describe your business in pitches and collateral, and how you evaluate opportunities. Without getting this step right, there is absolutely no point in thinking about the future.
About 25 years ago, I participated in a planning cycle with a church I belonged to, and we worked with a book: To Dream Again. It influenced me a lot, especially the core proposition that people typically short change the dreaming process; they are in too much of a hurry to get to clear goals that they can start planning towards. The beauty of dreaming is that it does not need to be sensible, or practical, or coherent. It’s a flow of aspirations and ideas, and without the pressure of needing to be definitive and plannable, they often feed off each other as those in the planning group contribute them.
I have returned to this idea many times over the years and often use the word “dream” in planning and problem solving. Frequently I invite participants to share their dream outcome to a particular situation, and then we get onto the problem solving later.
When I ask participants to dream in a strategic planning process, I focus on a period that is too far into the future to specifically plan for, but not so far off that it feels unrealistic – typically more than five years and less than 10:
Having a coherent dream document in place makes it much, much easier to focus on a two-year time frame and discuss the question of where, specifically, we want to be across all the important areas of the company — and the steps that are needed to get there. This can end up a little unrealistic because usually teams have a great deal they want to accomplish. That’s ok. The two-year period is really just an artificial construct to move from a dream state to some smart medium-term goals.
Once the earlier questions are thoughtfully addressed, the final set of questions becomes relatively easy. I am implacably opposed to setting out priorities quarter-by-quarter into the future. I believe life is a lot more iterative than linear, and the one thing those approaches guarantee is that you will NOT be doing those things at that time. Instead, I believe in focusing on the next quarter only — thoughtfully discussing and choosing a short list of what is most important to move towards the more definitive two-year goals and thence, a company’s dream future.
How do you prevent the strategic plan gathering from dust? The answer is to keep it simple, not worrying too much about the words and, most importantly, being accountable. I believe in going before our company every quarter to discuss our progress, how we fared against the priorities we assigned ourselves in the previous quarter, and what our priorities are for the next quarter. I also believe in having an overarching priority, articulating the single thing that is most important right now.
These simple questions and steps have had a profound impact on life at KCIC. Sometimes the approach feels less glamorous and less fun than the more traditional, blood-on-the-walls approaches to strategy. But I can live without the drama. Instead, I have the confidence of knowing that every person in our company knows who we are, what we believe, and what we are working on to achieve our dreams. And looking back at the end of the most successful year in the life of the company, I can see the results.
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Jonathan Terrell is the Founder and President of KCIC. He has more than 30 years of international financial services experience with a multi-disciplinary background in accounting, finance and insurance. Prior to founding KCIC in 2002, he worked at Zurich Financial Services, JP Morgan, and PriceWaterhouseCoopers.Learn More About Jonathan