In the course of helping companies with their strategic planning I have come to view the process in one of two ways. When putting together a strategic plan you are either removing roadblocks or building the road. These analogies might seem simplistic, but I think they are useful for a few reasons.
First, strategic planning can be intimidating, especially for teams at smaller companies. Teams with little planning experience may not know what they are expected to accomplish. Similarly, teams that do have planning experience may have been engaged in a process that was so complex they lost sight of the purpose of planning. A simple analogy contrasting two distinct types of planning can remove that mystique and give everyone a better sense of where they are expected to wind up at the end of the exercise.
Second, strategic plans are often abandoned. A clear understanding of the process, especially if presented in simple, easy to digest language will increase the involvement of the team. Greater team engagement makes it hard to abandon the plan later. There is a great sense of accountability that comes with a group effort.
Third, the easier it is to understand and communicate the process the more likely that it will become a regular part of the team’s role. The same principles that are used in broad, business planning are useful as more narrowly focused teams work on operational challenges or specific performance improvements.
So what does building a road look like? Strategic planning using this method is sometimes called goals-based planning. At its most fundamental level it involves a) defining where you are and where you want to go b) deciding the best route or strategy to get you there and c) making the operational changes necessary to close the gap and arrive at the goal or vision.
The road building analogy is useful because everyone can relate to charting a course from their present position to a desired destination. It is also useful because it can serve to illustrate the different phases a company goes through in the planning process. There is designing the plan (surveying the route the road is going to take), executing the plan (physically building the road) and working on efficiencies while establishing new standard operating procedures (maintaining the road).
But some companies have a hard time with such a comprehensive planning process. There could be lots of reasons that teams find the road building type of planning difficult. Often they have no prior experience setting organization wide goals or they may have had a dismal experience working on a prior plan. Sometimes they just lack the resources to tackle something as intense as a goals-based plan. Whatever the reasons the paradigm of removing roadblocks may serve these teams better.
Removing roadblocks recognizes that whichever route or strategy a team takes there are some fundamental issues that keep holding them back. That is why this type of work is often called “issues-based” planning. Some good examples of roadblocks are poor delegation by top managers, lack of a good sales process, ineffective information gathering systems, insufficient capital, inconsistent product or service quality. The list goes on.
In this type of planning the team’s first job is to prioritize all of the issues that could be addressed. Next, the team focuses its entire effort on removing the number one road block. And this is key. Teams that spread their efforts over three or four different issues often fail to make significant progress on any of them. But those teams that put everything else on the back burner except the ugliest and nastiest road block can often dispatch the issue in two to three months. Then they move on to the next item on the list.
It is usually the case that teams graduate from removing road blocks to building their own roads after twelve to eighteen months of successful issues-based planning. The morale, trust and confidence gained through successful road block removal serves these teams well and frees them up to imagine the possibilities to be realized through goals-based planning.
If you are about to begin the planning process for the first time or if you are trying to overcome the problems created by past planning efforts consider adopting the analogy that fits your planning paradigm. The imagery of road blocks and road building just might help your team get its arms around a plan to take the company to the next level.