After a few years of strategic planning, management teams almost always ask, “How can we put life back into our strategic planning? We’ve achieved great success, but we’d like to have the same level of excitement we had in the first few years.”
This question often comes up for reasons that are inherent in the process itself. First, strategic planning – as an ongoing process – tends to yield easy benefits in the first couple of years, as your team focuses attention on the low-hanging fruit. After a couple of cycles of this, the fruit that is left may seem to be a little harder to reach…and often, it is. Secondly, if your process is well-run, each cycle of planning will seem more like a part of your management routine and less like a special event. This is true of any process that you repeat routinely, but with strategic planning, the first couple of years seem strange and wonderful because good strategic planning is so far outside the norm for most managers. Finally, as your team gains experience with the process of identifying strategic objectives and effectively implementing them, they also learn how much work is involved…and there may be a natural reluctance to commit to the big, exciting projects that bring so much energy to the first few years of strategic planning.
Over the years, I’ve developed exercises to give the ongoing planning process a little more “zing”. In general, these exercises fall into 3 categories:
1. Making the strategic plan more personal – many plans lose their “zing” because they seem to be about someone else…so identifying how individuals affect – and are affected by – the strategy can help reverse this.
2. Giving the vision more substance – sometimes, the vision encompassed in your strategy is too abstract for the team to “get into it”. In these cases, some work on what the reality of that vision will look like can be just the thing.
3. Drilling deeper into specific parts of the strategy – in many cases, there are things just below the surface that can dramatically transform your company. A little digging in some specific areas can turn up gold!
Make it More Personal
While personalizing the strategic plan is one of the most effective ways to bring energy and commitment to it implementation, it’s also one of the most difficult ways to do this. This is because, unlike many of the variables of the strategic planning process, the complexities of the personalities involved pose analytic difficulties that are both broad – covering a wide range of possibilities – and deep – making them far more difficult to unravel than, say, a question of market responses to certain product changes. Even so, there are some ways of working with the personal nature of involvement with your strategic plan that can yield excellent results
One way of driving home the personal nature of commitment to your team’s plan is to bypass personality issues and address the question in a fairly neutral way. An exercise I often use to do this involves asking the team members to identify exactly how they envision themselves contributing to forward motion along the lines of the strategy, and how they see themselves (and their activities) creating obstacles to that same forward motion. As you might guess, it’s much easier to get team members to discuss their positive roles in a group setting. One way around this is to reduce the initial interactions around this to a one on one conversation. It’s also a great exercise to have team members pair up and discuss the positive contributions, then have each member report on the positive elements of his/her partner.
To reassure the team, I like to tell them that this exercise is not about who is the best, or who has the least weaknesses. Instead, I point out that the greatest opportunity in this exercise lies in our ability to find the best adaptations to existing weaknesses – and that the more obstacles we can identify, the more obstacles we can get out of our way.