January 2020 Magazine Startup AR

Strategic Growth Planning as a Business Discipline


“If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.” — Yogi Berra


by Jeff Standridge


No matter the size of your organization, effective planning is a critical component of optimum, sustainable growth. Without a focused plan, organizations of all sizes are apt to drift from one ill-conceived initiative to another, not knowing what the end result will look like or even if it has been accomplished. In my experience, struggling organizations often lack focused strategies that are tied to specific, sustainable growth outcomes. 


 Many organizations spend countless hours engaged in some form of a planning process from which emerges a laundry list of new products, strategies, initiatives and/or objectives. Instead of using the planning process to discover and articulate the “vital few” key actions that will produce the greatest results, organizations and their leaders tend to produce a list of the “insignificant many,” in hopes of covering every potential action from which the “magic bullet” might emerge. This litany of new “stuff” causes preemptive fatigue among an already resource-constrained team and often creates more distraction than focused action. 


 Another variation is the all too familiar three-ring binder that contains pages and pages of strategic planning documentation. This “plan” gets placed on the shelves of all of the corner offices and is only retrieved every year to two to discuss progress. Both of these examples leave much to be desired when it comes to creating organized, sustainable growth in any organization.


 A few years ago, Tony Jeary introduced the concept of strategic acceleration in his book of the same name. Accelerating the achievement of any goals, plans or strategies effectively requires three predicates. While I have found this construct to be very useful in my own practice, I have adapted Jeary’s definitions, based on my experience:


1.) Clarity – the ability to get crystal clear about the purpose and direction of your organization, as well as clarity about the desired outcomes your organization wishes to achieve. 


2.) Focus — the development of a laser-like guidance system in order to avoid distraction, and to concentrate on the high-leverage activities that will produce the greatest results.


3.) Execution — the ability to effectively deploy and direct resources in order to achieve the desired outcomes. 


 At the end of the day, strong, sustainable growth does not happen by accident. It happens because the right actions are taken at the right time, in the right way, to produce a desired, sustainable outcome. This requires leadership. Leaders are responsible for ensuring that clarity, focus and impeccable execution exist in any organization they have been entrusted to lead. Failure to do so is an abdication-leadership responsibility. When leaders ensure there is clarity of purpose and direction, when they remove distractions by saying “no” to certain possible actions or courses of action, and when they properly allocate resources toward the desired outcomes that have been identified, they have drastically increased their organization’s probability of success. That is the essence of a high-quality strategic plan, and it is the leader’s responsibility to ensure it exists. That being said, building out a quality plan isn’t always an easy task.


 In our daily practice, we provide coaching, consulting and training to entrepreneurs, business executives and organizational leaders across a wide variety of industries, spanning a wide range of sizes. From startups to well-established firms, from colleges and universities to Fortune 100s, most seem to struggle with this concept of “planning.” How do we properly plan for the future?  How do we anticipate so many unknowns?  How do we determine the best actions to take in a business climate that is changing so rapidly? These are some of the questions we routinely receive as we engage with leaders on this topic of planning. Our response is that a solid plan does not remove all of the potential ambiguities in doing business. A solid plan provides a framework through which to face and deal with those ambiguities. Leadership judgment is still required amidst the myriad unanticipated events, hurdles, and roadblocks that spring up after a solid strategic plan has been printed, bound and distributed. 


  While some leaders and their organizations have the ability to create high-quality plans organically, others require some degree of outside assistance to ensure the highest quality output. In our experience, a skilled, neutral, outside facilitator will improve the quality of any planning exercise. These facilitators draw on a wealth of experience, across multiple organizations, and can ask the difficult questions that might remain unasked in an organic planning process.


 In our practice, we combat the tendency to be overly verbose in our planning exercises and the resulting plan documents. It is our experience that a well-crafted plan is an exercise in subtraction, not an exercise in addition, and certainly not one in multiplication! We generally construct our planning process to focus on seven key ingredients, all of which can usually fit on a handful of pages. How you discover those key ingredients is part of the “secret sauce” of a quality planning exercise. But once you create it, the positive outcomes on your business or organization can be dramatic. 

Jeff Standridge is a growth strategist, innovation consultant, executive coach, author and adjunct professor at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway.


Key Ingredients of a Strategic Growth Plan:


 Mission — This is why your organization exists. It describes what it was created to do, ideally from the perspective of your customers or key stakeholders – the primary beneficiaries of your products or services.


Vision This is a specific point in the future … a destination, usually three to five years out, that you aspire to achieve or at which you aspire to arrive with your organization. The keys to remember in articulating a quality vision is that it must be aspirational, time-bound, compelling, and have absolute clarity. 


Values — The shared values of an organization describe its desired culture. They serve as the behavioral compass, or the behavior guardrails, of your organization as you execute against your Mission and as you drive toward the fulfillment of your vision. Shared Values are the things that you and your team believe so deeply that they directly impact your individual and collective behavior.


Long-term targets — Also sometimes called “strategic objectives,” we prefer to call them “long-term targets” because they span the same time-frame as your vision, and they are specific and measurable, such that a leader can look back at the appointed time and answer definitively as to whether they were achieved or not. Ideally, organizations should only pursue a handful (usually three to five, maybe seven in larger organizations) of long-term targets. 


 Short-term goals — These are the handful (again, usually three to five but maybe up to seven in larger organizations) of very specific things that must be achieved in the following 12 months to ensure you remain on track toward your long-term targets and ultimately, the fulfillment of your vision. If you picked a date five years out for your long-term targets, then these goals must take you 20 percent of the way there in the following year.  If you selected a date three years out, your short-term goals must get you one-third of the way there within the next year. 


Key performance indicators — Your key performance indicators (KPIs) are the handful of things (no more than five) that you should be measuring on a weekly (or at least monthly) basis to ensure your business (whatever that business might be) is operating from a position of health. These are the things that drive the “economic engine” (i.e. the growth, the health, the vitality) of your organization. 


Brand promise or tagline — This component is far more optional than any other component of a strategic growth plan. It is a short, memorable phrase that captures what your organization is all about.  It can be your brand promise such as what your customers or key stakeholders expect from you. It can be a marketing slogan which is what you want to be remembered for. Or, it can be a brief reference to the culture you want to exist. The key here is that it is short, memorable and impactful. 

READ MORE: Established Companies Should Think Like a Startup

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