Cast your mind to a drab meeting room. People are huddled around laptops, Excel worksheets open as they furiously try to reconcile targets with results. There’s a flipchart with illegible numbers scrawled all over it, and somebody in the corner is complaining about needing to get on with their ‘real’ job. It sounds terrible, and it is – but this is the reality of strategy and planning for far too many businesses.
When so much dread surrounds the planning process, perhaps we need to step back and reassess what is really important. These sessions shouldn’t merely be an exercise in confirming the figures. When approached from other angles they can be immensely powerful. Rather than crunching the numbers, we could instead spend our time identifying a vision and plotting the steps needed to bring it to life.
Here are my thoughts on why we need to turn the strategising process upside down, and how it can become something altogether more valuable.
Traditional planning cycles waste time. Worse than that – they’re dreadfully boring.
At regular quarterly or annual intervals, work grinds to a halt as targets fall from on high. People are tasked with delivering the numbers that have been set on a corporate level. They focus solely on the consequences of failing to do so and develop tunnel vision to get the job done – regardless of whether they’re useful or accurate.
It’s easy to lose sight of reality when your bible is a spreadsheet. The KPIs and figures used are often based on historical performance, and they risk anchoring a business to the past. There’s no forward-thinking and no opportunity to consider what else could be done beyond the confines of the status quo.
You’re left with a game of Jenga where businesses try to force the square peg of targets into the round hole of real life. It’s forecasting, not planning - and it stands little chance of uniting stakeholders behind a brand or concept.
The approach I’ve just described is not too dissimilar to a post-mortem. It involves dissecting past results and using them to inform your future direction, when strategies should look forward. Without a creative vision for the future, nothing can change.
To avoid the post-mortem, try moving past the dull meetings and spreadsheets. Start not with last year’s results, but with the end in mind. Ask what you want to achieve and what kind of organisation you want to be. This can take some imagination. For some clients, we’ve even replaced words with illustrations to help them paint a picture of what the years ahead might be like. You need to - and can - be creative.
It’s easy for businesses to get caught in a default cycle that’s little more than a holding pattern. Instead, figure out what it is you want to achieve 3 or 5 years from now and work backwards from there.
What isn’t working?
What’s needed to make progress?
As you fill in those details, you’ll move toward a game plan that brings people together and galvanises them into action.
On another level, strategic planning is about stopping, breathing, and assessing. It’s a common misconception that moving fast is the only way to get ahead. Slowing down can help give you just as much (if not more) of a competitive edge.
The Ancient Greeks called this Kairos – which, unlike chronological time, reflects that there are opportune moments for qualitative reflection. By pausing to work out what is valuable from a scenario, you are able to step back and see a different picture.
It’s a case of slowing down to see things more clearly, and to make sure that the whole business is moving in sync to the right rhythm. A 2010 study showed that companies who paused to check they were on the right path could markedly improve their bottom lines. Those who just kept going (and going, and going) without direction ended up with lower profits.
This just goes to show that fast isn’t always the answer. Sometimes, we need to give our ideas time to breathe.
Of course, the work doesn’t stop when you’ve made your grand plan. For radical and exciting ideas to get off the ground, they need life support from internal and external sources alike.
To bring an idea to life, businesses need to develop with it. It’s only with the right skills, structures, and reward mechanisms that you can put out new products, brands, and services. These are the things that make incremental steps towards an idea – making dreams for the future into a reality.
It’s also important to recognise that businesses don’t operate in a bubble. To compete, it’s necessary to look outside of your own organisation and question how your plan interacts with the wider world. The voice of the consumer is truly powerful, and a product or technology release that’s timed to perfection will push you further on the journey towards your goal.
Through this dual internal/external focus you can develop workstreams that power your ideas. Even if you can’t outspend the competition, you can outthink them.
You may be familiar with the adage ‘failing to plan is planning to fail,’ but too often the process is turned into a numbers game. Instead, it should be about vision, and organisations shouldn’t be afraid to slow down and find a cause to get behind.
The Pareto Principle says that 80% of results come from just 20% of actions. In business, a large chunk of that 20% is likely to be the time you spend planning. Rather than being anchored to the past, why not use the planning time to unite people behind an exciting concept for the future of your organisation.
Every day, we encourage our clients to say the defining ‘I Wish’ and to follow through towards their dreams. From that point onwards, it’s a slow and conscious approach to strategy that guides them along their way.