It is so easy to be busy in our jobs. You know, doing email, returning phone calls, and having meetings. Some days on my commute home I wonder what happened during the day. Busy does not equate to progress and most definitely isn’t strategic. What does it mean to ‘be strategic’? Why is this important to making positive progress? Is strategic planning still a relevant business function in this ever fast changing world?
My wife and I visited Greece this past year and saw amazing examples of architecture and focused energy in creating complex structures and infrastructure. When you think of the resources they had at their disposal, it seems impossible that they could have done the things they did 1000’s of years ago. Take the Isthmian Canal for example. It was created to replace the more difficult method of rolling ships across land on logs. But, it took incredible focus and resources to complete. It was a very strategic goal designed to make far faster and easier passage from one part of Greece to another. Without intense focus, they would have never accomplished their goal.
“Strategy is important because the resources available to achieve these goals are usually limited. Strategy generally involves setting goals, determining actions to achieve the goals, and mobilizing resources to execute the actions. A strategy describes how the ends (goals) will be achieved by the means (resources)” - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strategy (Jan. 2, 2015).
Leaders need to regularly assess the current state of their organization to determine what needs to be changed so as to make improvements or create game changers. To be strategic, they will be concerned with setting goals to focus effort and resources on specific actions designed to make the changes deemed necessary. It would seem then that a plan would be important for documenting and tracking the assessment, the desired changes, and the specific goals and actions.
I have seen (and participated in creating) some poor examples of ‘strategic plans’. You know the type, loaded with paragraphs of descriptive text, diagrams, and quotes, and an excessive number of goals and objections that tend to dilute rather than focus efforts. As well, I’ve rarely seen a strategic plan be used to regularly guide an organizations actions. Its completion (the writing) often serves as a proud culminating moment and then it is dusted annually for key people to write about their progress towards achieving the goals.
One of the realities that I think leads to loaded (unruly) strategic plans is how much consultation is needed to create them. The (lengthy) consultation process often results in a lot of advocating by interested parties to have specific goals included and where there are many stakeholders involved, the plan can become unruly. Also, ownership and accountability for specific goals is not always assigned. It is important to identify who is expected to achieve each goal and what happens if they failed to do so in the expected timeline. Regular review of and reporting on of progress is important to keep people focused on what’s been deemed strategic.
In my work of late advancing the use of technology I have not pursued the creation of formal strategic plans. Rather, I’ve found strategic IT roadmaps to be helpful. A roadmap is guide based on a few key strategic themes. It is designed for the same purpose of a strategic plan but is far more focused on critical specific needs. The roadmap is used to generate specific initiatives to make specific progress, reduce risks, or solve problems. A strategic IT roadmap could be the outcome of a lite weight strategic planning process that involves stakeholders in understanding the context, identifying areas of need, and setting direction. A roadmap would forecast and translate this direction into actionable initiatives. Stakeholders could also be helpful in fleshing out details, addressing obstacles, and reviewing progress.
For example, An organization that has fallen behind in their effective use of technology might have two foundational strategic themes such as Infrastructure (sub-themes: network, security, servers, storage) and Access Equity (sub-themes: devices for people to access online services and tools, and access to adequate support). Within each theme/sub-theme, specific initiatives (connected to supporting the organizations evolving priorities) would be designed, proposed, prioritized, and funded. A rolling five year forecast of budget needs would be developed for each theme to inform the organization of the commitments necessary to advance and maintain the roadmap. The roadmap serves as a tool to signal the direction and magnitude of strategic investments. It is a ‘living document’ in that for each budget cycle it is revised and updated so as to keep it adaptable to shifting organization and environmental priorities. Once sufficient progress is made on foundational themes, additional strategic themes could be pursued and road mapped to rely on earlier themes. Think of it as building a house on a solid foundation. Sometimes though, organizational pressures require inclusion of progressive themes before foundational themes are adequately actualized. Such is life in complex organizations.
Being strategic is important, a plan is helpful, but make it meaningful and consider using roadmaps as a tool to focus and actualize the work. If you aim at everything you will hit nothing in particular!