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How to turn the strategic planning process into a way of being

Jul 07, 2019

Has your business tended to view the strategic planning process as linear? For many businesses, their leadership developed a plan that outlined their organization’s strategic priorities, shaped their goals and drove their action plans. A led to B led to C and so on, until annual review time when the plan was updated.

In practice, that linear strategic plan is also rather static. It’s informed and evaluated from the top-down, with long cycle times between each planning event. 

While that traditional approach can still be effective for some organizations, it has two notable weaknesses: It limits an organization’s ability to adapt to rapidly changing market dynamics, and it commonly fails in execution. 

Why? Because implementing the plan is such a widespread challenge. It’s why strategic planning is so often greeted with sighs and cynicism. A sort of “here we go again” malaise hangs over the organization as plans are made and then so-often shelved, only to be dusted off and reviewed at next year’s planning event. 

Breaking the cycle

High-performing organizations have found a way to break that cycle. Instead of a strategic plan that’s linear and static, they have processes in place that allow them to be proactive and future-thinking. 

They understand that technology is driving rapid change in the marketplace, and they have infrastructure in place to pivot quickly. As a result, these high performers are consistently ready to capture new opportunities and get ahead of potential threats. 

But in order to get there, leaders need to rethink their approach to strategic planning to transform the way the entire organization not only executes but also shapes that plan. It’s far less about strategic planning as an “event” and more about strategic planning as a way of being. 

Let’s break that down.

Strategic management

While the terms “strategic planning”and “strategic management” are often used interchangeably, it’s an inaccurate way of looking at what needs to go on in your organizations. Planning is the process how you formulate the direction for the organization, and management is the overarching way to achieve the set goals. 

The strategic planning process is much more comprehensive than just planning. In a sense, it’s the management of that strategic plan that’s the larger responsibility. When we use strategic planning and strategic management together, that’s when we’re able to realize our goals. 

The planning process starts the effort to move the organization forward. Then, managing action plans and projects — as well as managing the life cycle of the plan — is what actually makes that strategic plan a useful, effective tool for the organization. 

Strategic management’s three phases

Strategic management has three phases: Think, plan and act. These steps are similar to the strategic planning cycle but should be viewed as an ongoing process, not a single event. 

  • ThinkConduct an internal and external assessment and shape a position for the future.
  • PlanDevelop strategy and plans and turn strategy into action initiatives.
  • ActMonitor and evaluate, learn and improve.

We can do all the planning in the world, but if we don’t take action, we’re never going to meet our goals. The action step is where we implement the strategy, but broader than that, it’s where we create a performance culture that acts on metrics and is built on accountability.

By acting on metrics, we’re moving forward based on data and performance information. When that’s built into a continual management process, we’re able to adjust course and shift our plan based on current metrics — not historical numbers and projections generated during an annual planning process.

Strategic management doesn’t change or scrap the plan, but it adjusts action plans based on what we’re seeing in our business and the progress we’re making toward our goals. 

The agile approach to strategic planning 

This paradigm shift and greater emphasis on strategic management brings us to a new way of thinking about the strategic planning process: agile planning.

As a method of project management, agile emerged in the early 2000 as a new approach to software development. Instead of what was known as “waterfall development” in which the organization created a plan for a technology solution and then waited until completion day to figure out if what they got was really what they wanted and needed, the agile approach replaced that high-level design with an iterative development process that accommodated and welcomed frequent redesign. 

Developed as a way to drive productivity, the agile approach breaks down work into small increments. Work is done in bite-sized steps in a way that allows for consistent feedback, positive reinforcement (the power of small wins) and course correction. 

Another core element of the agile approach is cross-functional teaming. With greater input from across the organization, software projects (and strategic plans) benefit from wider perspective and the elevated sense of purpose and buy-in that comes from a participative role in the development process.

In summary, agile promotes the following: 

  • Frequent inspection and adaptation, as well as constant reexamination 
  • A leadership philosophy that fosters teamwork, self-organization and accountability
  • A business approach that aligns development with stakeholder needs and organizational goals 

And is most effective when: 

  • Projects are complex
  • It’s difficult to fully define the scope or set requirements at the beginning of a project 
  • Projects are likely to have many changes or updates during the project life cycle

Sounds like a perfect fit for a modern strategic plan, right?

Storyboards and strategy

We’re using this approach with a financial client right now that wants to open a new line of business. It’s this big vision for them, but they’re not quite sure how to do it. The project has so many moving parts, it feels a little overwhelming. 

So, we started with a storyboard, which is what you do in agile software development. You tell the user story. What is Mary going to experience? What is Doug going to experience? What do we want to have happen? 

You storyboard that out, and then you determine how to group those stories into what we call “sprints.” In the case of software, we prioritize the things that have to happen into two-week sprints, and then we build. And then we build on top of that, and do it again, like building blocks. 

But every stage that we get to, we’re stopping and examining, did we map that out right? Are our outcomes where we need to be? Do we need to shift and pivot?

In the financial institution we’re working with, we’ve set our sprints in one-month segments because that makes most sense for their business. Every month, then, they’re examining the work that got done in the previous weeks and then figuring out if they need to reorganize or reprioritize. 

It’s an effective way of getting the team to map out what needs to be done first, second and third. At the same time, the pressure and stakes go down, in a sense, because there isn’t this expectation that you’re going to get it exactly right the first time. Everyone knows the end result is going to be improved because the group is continually reexamining what’s been done, where the vision needs to shift and where they need to go next. 

Agile is not an “all the eggs in one basket approach.” Instead of a long cycle, with opportunity for things to go wrong, agile incorporates frequent iterations with opportunity to course correct. 

The age of agility

In the past, we may have been able to view a strategic plan like a building blueprint. We had detailed instructions that we were going to construct on a strong and stable foundation. But in the age of digital disruption, we have to let go of our expectations for concrete foundations. Sands are shifting. 

We live in disruptive times, and the speed of change is ever-increasing. Agile planning is the only way to stay on top of those changes. And perhaps more, it’s an effective way to create a strategic planning culture — one where the strategic plan becomes a living, breathing tool, instead of an annual event, labored over at the top but all too often left to molder in the desk drawer. 

Strategic advisory services

With a range of strategic planning services, Wipfli helps leaders and their teams maximize their ability to think strategically and then achievetheir short- and long-term goals. Contact us to discuss how to transform strategic thought and execution in your organization. 


Marcie Bomberg-Montoya, OCI, OEI
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Deron J. Kling
Senior Manager
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