When the late, great recession first arrived, most companies set aside their long range strategic planning efforts altogether. In the beginning this was simple survival; urgent matters came first. Later a persistent unease (or fear) of uncertainty paralyzed many a leader and organization. I spent the next five years railing about how wrong this thinking was – provoking firm leaders to tap again into the powerful, overarching questions of mission, vision, and enterprise strategy – those highest level objectives that really matter most. “In times like these, more planning is needed, not less,” I implored. And indeed, eventually, most leaders did again reengage with strategic planning. We’ve been extraordinarily busy with this work for the last five years or more.
Today’s pandemic moment calls back to the last recession in some (but not all) ways. Certainly change, volatility, and profound uncertainty are here again – like a two ton weight crushing our chest. And I don’t see much change in this picture for a while. Still, today it’s more obvious to many that, if I can’t change much about my circumstance, what I can do is adjust my thinking, and then simply get on with it. Unlike the last great recession, there is today considerable economic activity and opportunity – especially for those who see, shift, and adapt to the new rules, restrictions, and realities.
Strategic planning work continues, though we too have had to innovate. And, over the last six months, we’ve adapted to the new (ab)normal ourselves – reimagining our approach, process, and tools. We have a strong foundation (fifteen years and nearly one hundred engagements) but those new ideas and emphases have resulted I believe in a still improved product – with stronger business outcomes and client experiences. Old dog, new tricks – cool stuff. I’m proud of it.
So here are seven thoughts about what we’re doing today – simultaneous change and growth, along with stability and resilient focus:
Engaging Assessments – I’ve long thought of our comprehensive organization assessment as more than data gathering. Colleagues have at times criticized the amount of effort I spend in personal (individual and group) Interviews. Still, I believe that beyond the knowledge, building trust – for the hard work to follow – is even more important. Of course today we’re doing most interviews on Zoom or Teams – and honestly they’re going great. Most of us are still too isolated socially. Candid, empathetic, and real connectivity and conversations, done right through the assessment process, are a powerful tool for employee care.
Defining Scenarios – Most of my professional career has happened in a strong business climate – one defined by consistent growth and near unlimited opportunity. Even the rare downturns have been stable in their own way – not highly volatile and uncertain for long. As a result, we haven’t used futures scenario planning very often. But today, predicting our future environment is extraordinarily challenging (it’s hard to plan for five years out when five weeks out is a crap shoot itself). Defining and evaluating the implications of different scenarios is key – only then can progressive organizations build and execute business strategies that are agile and resilient – and that succeed across multiple futures. This shift is one of our biggest (and richest) adaptations to the strategic planning experience, and it’s helping many client teams chart a better path forward.
Visioning in Parts – Another area of significant adaptation is moving the linchpin visioning session to an online, virtual format. I’ll confess that this is still the toughest change in thinking for me. I’ve worked very hard over the years to deliver an in-person visioning experience that is truly distinctive – and aspirationally magical – where committed, aligned, and trusting partners get together to dream, define, and detail what matters, most. I still believe deeply in that experience. In the interim, we’re soldiering on – and with good experiences and (frankly) better than expected outcomes. Our reimagined process includes shorter, sequential meetings of about two hours each (no exhausting, long, full days online), reflective and soul-searching pre and post session work, interactive real time polling, and explicit expectations for attendee participation and contribution. We’re making it work – and work well.
Limited Strategies – This isn’t really a new idea, but its even more important today: limiting the number of operational strategies the firm pursues at one time. Because in any planning effort, communicating for clarity, and cascading commitment throughout the firm, is crucial to sustainable, ongoing, and focused effort. And yet established communications lines are right now somewhat broken, bruised, or hidden. The watch word of success here is focus. A simple message like this: “this year we’re working on just these three things” is an absolute necessity.
Annual Initiatives – Similar to focused strategies, the firm should also limit the action initiatives connected to those strategies. In the past we’d often develop two to three years (or more) of important initiatives – and sometimes we’d launch into too many of them at once. Now, with such a fluid picture ahead, it makes much more sense to focus on a shorter horizon for identifying and executing initiatives – no more than 12-18 months. [Note too that this approach presupposes additional follow on planning sessions (ideally annually) to revisit, react, and re-up the list of priority action initiatives].
Delegate Responsibility – Again, not technically new here, we’ve long said that a planning session which leaves the executive with a big to do list is a failed planning session. An important facet of the planning process is to energize others around the table – to engage, step up, and lead (at least a part of) the work. I’m personally fond of claiming that strategic planning and leadership development are essentially the same thing; strategy is what leaders do, and creating and growing leaders is what strategy is all about. Today this is more important than ever, and strategic planning is a preeminent process for developing the firm’s next generation leaders.
Manage Actively – Early on in the lock down, most managers and leaders did a nice job of setting up, checking in, and connecting with their staff and teams. Empathy was high – and real. But as our situation has dragged on, this approach has worn a bit thin. “Are you OK, staying safe, and keeping productive today?” has become too routine – just another way of saying hello. True connectivity requires something more: a mission, an objective, a project. Strategic planning has always been (at the core) nothing more than a project – to grow, develop, and improve the firm. As professional project managers, we’d never think to leave a client project to manage itself. Same with our own, internally focused projects – active management drives results. This year we’ve focused even more intensity on very short term (90 days) action – with focused, accountability coach-based management. Get. This. Suff. Done. It’s good for the firm – and good for the soul.
Strategic business planning remains one of the most important, opportunity-laden pathways that firm leaders can pursue. This work is high leverageable across the organization, and (when done right) promises a sky-high return on effort. Today we’ve adjusted our approach and process a bit – to more fully take advantage of the current situation – and to provide still more competitive advantage for our client partners.
With the future of our work, business, industry, and economy likely to remain highly volatile, opaquely uncertain, and constantly changing – for who knows how long, and maybe now forever – we believe it’s time to shift, adjust, and marshal on with our priorities – and with vision-driven planning for what matters most.
So, how about it – shall we win this – together?