Unless you’ve been running your firm out of a cave for the last few decades, you’ve probably already been bombarded with business literature bespeaking the importance of strategic planning. But in spite of the fact that most business owners are aware of the significance of strategic planning, surprisingly few have actually succeeded at translating this buzz word into their everyday operations.
If the prospect of taking on an ambitious planning project makes you shudder, don’t sweat it. Contrary to what you might have heard, strategic planning doesn’t have to be some grand undertaking that takes weeks or even months to see through to completion.
In fact, for the vast majority of small and medium-sized businesses, all you need to get a basic strategic plan in place is a legal pad, two or three hours of free time, and perhaps a small team of your most trusted peers, partners, and advisors to bounce ideas off of. Here’s a basic checklist to help you kick off the process.
Gather some basic information about the current status of your business and the market. This is the step that can really drag on for months if you follow traditional strategic planning advice. If you think that in-depth SWOT analyses and lengthy evaluations of your competitors will help, go for it. But if your team already has a strong fundamental understanding of current market conditions and challenges, months of number-crunching could be overkill. Take a “just in time” approach and gather only what you really need to make an informed evaluation of your firm’s current and future prospects.
Formulate a few major goals to work toward. Based on your current position and the most significant opportunities in the market, develop a list of major objectives. Try to avoid a list comprised of many small goals—instead, experts recommend a list of three to five broad objectives, each of which may encompass a number of smaller “sub-goals.”
Devise strategies to help you achieve your objectives. After you’ve defined your objectives, it’s time to determine the best way to get there. Start with a brainstorming session, listing all of the possible strategies you could use to achieve your stated goals. Then, after careful consideration, select what you think are the best two or three strategies linked to each goal. That way, you’ll have some room for adaptation as you encounter unexpected variables down the road.
Make a plan for implementation. Now that you have your objectives and strategies in place, it’s time to sketch out how these concepts will be translated into action. How will you incorporate the necessary changes into your daily practices, policies, and operations? What is your budget for the change effort? In this phase, try to veer away from broad generalizations and stick to specifics. What will a typical day at the office look like once your team has begun working toward your stated goals?
Define and schedule evaluation benchmarks. In this step, you decide what success will look like. How will you know whether your plan has been successfully implemented? Again, try to aim for detailed metrics—such as a specific percentage gain in sales or profits—that will help you determine what success means. Also, tentatively schedule evaluation meetings every quarter or every six months to check up on your progress and keep the momentum going.
Are you a strategic planning pro or more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants type of person? How has strategic planning helped or hindered your firm in the past? Talk back in the comments.