Strategic Planning for Survival
Studying up on strategic planning yields just one hard and fast conclusion: It has no clear definition, even among people who provide it. Depending on who you ask, it can be as simple as regular meetings to review sales strategies, or as complex as a multi-month process requiring tens of thousands of dollars of investment between time and external resources.
For our purposes, let’s describe strategic planning simply: Defining what sets you apart to plan tactics for the coming year, linked to a dare-we-say-strategic vision for your ideal future. It does not have to take months or tens of thousands of dollars to complete. It’s generally accomplished in three stages – research/analysis, planning and execution.
What’s the point? Why not just write a to-do list? In two words: shiny objects. How many times has the ping of a text message, the pop-up of an email or a ringing phone pulled you away from an important task?
Our brains are increasingly wired for not only interest in, but addiction to smartphones and other technologies. As much as to-do lists help with daily priorities, crafting a daily to-do without a longer-term plan for what those tasks accomplish leaves business owners susceptible to burnout, bandwagon-ing (“Our competitor is doing it, so we should, too”) and directionlessness. It’s hard to commit fully to a task when you’re not sure you should be doing it.
“There’s no focus,” said Jan Griffioen of Griffioen Consulting Group (West Bloomfield, MI), a veteran strategic planner with a B2B focus. “They’re going after any business opportunity that comes along. Sometimes it pans out and more often it doesn’t pan out because they’re not focused and they’re diluting their resources.”
While even the earliest-stage solopreneur can craft some sort of a strategic plan, having a mission and vision in place will take your outcomes beyond the tactical. Think of mission and vision as the “so what” behind your business.
And if you don’t have time, well, “[You] don’t see it as important enough,” according to Anthony Taylor, managing partner, SME Strategy Consulting (Vancouver, BC, Canada). “If I told you you’d get a million dollars for a new website, and I guaranteed it, you’d find the money. You’d figure it out.”
Mission (why you do what you do) and vision (where you’re going) can remain fluid while you’re nailing down strategic goals, but understand your differentiating factors. “You could ask, ‘If the business did not exist, then what?’” Griffioen said. “What would that mean to them and what would that mean to the marketplace?” In other words, what difference would it make if your company vanished tomorrow?
Even without mission and vision, and even lacking dedicated afternoons to the process, progress is possible. For those in the initial stages of business, Ivy Slater, founder of Slater Success Coaching (New York City), recommends sitting down and simply brainstorming what worked and what didn’t, even if that means one hour a week around a conference table. Slater is the former owner of Slater Graphics – which was a promotional printing shop in the competitive New York market – and something of a sales-growth expert.
Her counterparts partially agree. Griffioen recommends focusing on business-growth tactics (think: moving the sales needle) until you’re a player in your market before strategic planning as a solopreneur. That said, Slater’s work with smaller businesses veers toward the practical and operational.
“My process is simple and has a hell of a lot of common sense in it,” Slater said. “I always start on what are the goals for the year, and why are those goals. I reflect back on what worked in my clients’ business the previous year. What worked in marketing, sales; what worked financially? What didn’t work?” She uses that data to establish sales targets and marks out five-year projections that inform annual goals.
ANALYSIS WITHOUT PARALYSIS
Sold on strategy? Ideally, hire a consultant, someone who has no political stake in your choices and who can bring a set of fresh, experienced eyes to the planning process. At its simplest, this starts with a SWOT analysis – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, for the uninitiated. More recently, SOAR analyses have become popular (strengths, opportunities, aspirations, results) as a gentler and more modern replacement for the traditional SWOT exercise.
If you have time, or a consultant to help, you can also include a PESTEL analysis. Consider the political, economic, social, technological, environmental and legal factors that impact your organization. Brainstorm top trends and threats, then use this to inform your SWOT or SOAR analysis. (Points if you’re keeping all these acronyms straight!)
Lacking extra resources? Try these consultant-approved resources for conducting your own strategic planning research session, via Jan Griffioen:
- Strategic Planning for Dummies by Erica Olsen
- Online business databases (try a local or, better still, university library)
- Small Business Reference Center (EBSCO)
- AtoZ Databases
- Mergent Archives
- Mergent Intellect
PLANNING MORE THAN RETREAT
The stereotype of strategic planning as a day at the country club has its merits. It can help to plan time away from the office to minimize distractions and prompt creativity. No matter where you are, the planning phase means sitting down as a group and crafting an idea of your ideal future, what that looks like three (or sometimes five) years out, and making an operational plan to move toward that future over the next 12 months. If you’re a solopreneur, grab a friend for feedback and get started by asking, “What would my business look like in the future if all my hopes and dreams came true?”
“Most people are really operations-focused ... which is the non-strategic part of strategic planning,” Taylor said. “The operational stuff is the stuff you would do day-to-day if there were no difference. Strategic stuff is what you’re focused on over and above the day-to-day.”
As you’re organizing your meeting or process, carefully consider who should be in the room. No matter what, Griffioen said, don’t do it alone. “Find a key employee or a manager in the organization who is a bit of a contrarian. You don’t want people that think exactly in lockstep and then work together on the strategic plan. Not only does [meeting with a key or contrary employee] allow the company to accomplish more in less time because you can share assignments and you can split up assignments, but there’s more opportunity for, hopefully, discussion.” (Griffioen, who commonly works with $10-15 million companies, sets aside 3-4 months for the process, including assignments for participants to report on market conditions, competitors, etc.)
At a minimum, map out the coming year with three top priorities – three strategic areas for improvement. Then create quarterly tasks that will get you there. Assign each task a person and a due date.
EXECUTION: THE HARDEST EASY PART
For time-starved businesses, execution can be the hardest part of planning, simply because consultants are no longer onsite, attention spans are focused elsewhere and there is a sense that with the initial (long, tiring) meetings done, the plan is more or less complete. Come back to your plan at least quarterly to check that assigned tasks have been completed, and to adjust as needed.
“Where people fall short in plans sometimes is they don’t actually look at their plan,” Taylor warned. “Everybody has a strategic plan; they just might not know it. You’re making choices on a day-to-day basis, and consider that they are unconscious choices. If you’re feeling frustrated and you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s probably because you have no goal to work toward.” This trickles down to employees: “Imagine playing a game with no scoreboard and no rules. … That’s how most people are running their business. They have no objective, no purpose, no focus.”
DREAMS AND REALITY
“Formal procedures will never be able to forecast discontinuities, inform detached managers, or create novel strategies,” wrote strategic planning forefather Henry Mintzberg in The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning (check the Harvard Business Review for a free online excerpt).
If you’re familiar with the adage, “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” then you understand how easy it is for strategic planning to lull managers into believing organizational change has taken place when, in fact, that is a separate, if supportive, task. A careful strategy cannot eclipse the impact of a toxic manager any more than a new printer can make up for an understaffed workspace.
Still, Slater’s hopeful message resonates: Strategy can be as simple as asking where you want to be in five years, and what you’re doing this year to get there. “We had three big jobs last year that made an impact; what if we had one more of those jobs this year? I get a little granular,” she said. “It still baffles me that people don’t do this regularly.”
Note: To complement this article, we asked signshops and sign companies to submit images of their "dream sign project," or a sign project that fulfilled all of their design, fabrication and installation dreams. Grant Freking contributed image curation and captioning to this article.