Strategic Planning 101 – The Basic Foundations

Strategic planning is much easier than many people realize. If you have an intimate knowledge of your business and are able to think pragmatically about your strengths and weaknesses, you should be able to create a strategic plan fairly easily. Follow our strategic planning 101 guide to learn the basic foundations of strategic planning, and create a great strategic plan. Systems like Cascade can help significantly of course, in that they give you an interactive framework that is tried and tested within which to create your plan.

This article is part of our mini series ‘Strategic Planning 101’. You can download our free Strategic Planning 101 eBook which contains all of the articles from the series here:

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You can find the entire series of articles we have on Strategic Planning 101 here:

  1. Strategic Planning 101 – The Basic Foundations
  2. How to Write a Good Vision Statement
  3. Writing Your Organisational Values
  4. Creating Focus Areas for your Strategy
  5. Writing Good Strategic Objectives

Strategic Planning 101

In this article, I want to extract the key principles of the framework that we use and expose it for everyone to see, critique and hopefully use (whether inside Cascade, or otherwise!).  This is not going to be a heavy guide on strategic planning, but rather an introduction to a methodology that we find works extremely well for small and large organizations. It is nothing revolutionary and borrows heavily from various academic and real-life sources (too many to properly give credit too). However it’s easy to use, and it works.

Over the coming weeks, we’ll be deep-diving into each of the components and be giving some tips on how to actually create them effectively.

The End-Game

To give you an idea of how a good strategic plan will look once finished, we’ve created the simple diagram below.  It’s fairly self-explanatory, but we’ll explore the individual components in a moment.
strategic planning 101
Think of your strategy as a flow chart that reads from top to bottom, with each step being mandatory before going down to the next.  There is a reason that we called our product ‘Cascade‘ – and that is that strategy needs to not only cascade down throughout your organization but it itself needs to cascade from a Vision Statement, to Focus Areas, to Actions, etc.

Your Vision Statement (and/or Mission Statement)

First things first for strategic planning 101- a Vision Statement and a Mission Statement are not interchangeable or the same.  However, we found that in many cases, the amount of confusion generated from their relationship to one another means that it is actually more productive to focus on just one from a strategic planning angle.  This is a good synopsis of the differences – but for the purpose of this article, we’ll just be talking about the Vision Statement.

Do not start your strategic plan without defining your Vision Statement!

Why is it important?

Tonnes have been written about the value of a good Vision Statement – but I’ll summarise as follows:

Your Vision Statement is the anchor that stops you getting lost at sea.  It will help to tunnel your vision towards the outcomes that matter the most to your organization.  Every single thing that you write into your plan from this point onwards, will ultimately be helping you to get closer to your Vision.  One of the biggest blockers to the successful execution of a strategic plan is when it tries to achieve too much in one go.  Creating a Vision Statement will help you to avoid that trap right from the off.

Not only that – but a truly well written Vision Statement will provide guidance and inspiration for your people.  It might even help you to attract talent and investment into your organization.

Your Values

Unfortunately, the notion of ‘corporate values’ has been abused to the point of ridicule over the past century or so.  ENRON’s were ‘Respect, Integrity, Communication & Excellence’…

Too often, organizations simply throw out words that they think will sound good in a glossy marketing brochure but have little relevance to anything else.  Our take on ‘Values’ is subtlety different and hopefully somewhat more pragmatic.

Think of Values as the ‘enablers’ to your Vision Statement.  Don’t be afraid to be honest about how you want your people to act and think.  For example, a biotechnology company might have a Vision Statement such as:

“To change lives for the better, through the development and sale of affordable biotechnology products.”

They might then create a set of Values such as:

– Innovative
– Responsive
– Caring
– Commercially Minded

If you read the first three in a marketing brochure, you’d probably gloss over them as generic pretty quickly.  But the fourth one; ‘Commercially Minded’ isn’t perhaps as typical to see.  Let’s face it though unless your people are commercially minded – you literally have zero chance of fulfilling your Vision – you’ll run out of cash way before you get anywhere near.

Don’t be afraid to create meaningful values as part of your strategic plan.  You don’t have to necessarily publish these outside the organization if you don’t want too – though you should never be ashamed to talk about the pragmatic needs of an organization to succeed commercially.

Why are they important?

It can be extraordinarily easy to become over-focused on outcomes. Outcomes matter, for sure, but if the way in which you go about achieving them is wrong, the outcomes themselves risk becoming irrelevant.  Not only that – but organizations are ultimately nothing more than the sum of the people within them.  The need for basic rules about how you want those people to work together is no different as to why the game of soccer needs rules.  They exist to give a common purpose to your team (scoring goals), and to provide boundaries as to what people can to do achieve that purpose (no foul play).

Your Focus Areas

Your Vision Statement gives you a degree of focus already – but will hopefully be suitably broad that it gives room for your people to come up with innovative ways in which to achieve it.  Focus Areas help to provide that extra degree of clarification on your current thinking about the best way to get there.

Ideally, you will already have involved your people in helping to determine your Focus Areas!  We recently wrote an article about the best way to engage your people with your strategy – and involving them in the creation of Focus Areas goes a long way to this end.

Focus Areas should be tighter in definition that your Vision Statement – but not to the level of having any particular metric or deadline.  Following our biotechnology example above, some good Focus Areas might include:

– Pushing the boundaries of technological innovation
– Exploring new markets to generate growth
– Gaining a deeper understanding of the needs of our customers
– Growing shareholder returns

We usually suggest creating between 3 to 6 Focus Areas.  Any fewer and they will probably be too vague. Any more, and well…..I for one certainly can’t focus on more than 6 things concurrently!

Why are they important?

You absolutely want your people to feel empowered to come up with innovative and creative ways to be successful.  But for the same reason that you’re reading this guide right now – giving them a framework within which to do so, will be hugely helpful.

Well written Focus Areas can themselves be inspiring and motivational.  Once again, they will help to unite your organization behind a common purpose – and bring a sense of togetherness and belonging which should help to ease the tensions that can sometimes arise between teams and colleagues.

Your Strategic Objectives

Your Strategic Objectives should align to one or more of your Focus Areas.  It’s here that for the first time in our journey so far, that we need to start being quite specific.  How specific? Let’s take a look at an example of a well written Strategic Objective:

– Expand operations into Asia Pacific by the end of December 2017

This is too specific to be a Focus Area. Whilst it’s still very high level, it has a clear outcome and a deadline.  Both these aspects are critical to a good Strategic Objective.  Another common problem area for strategic plans, is that they never quite get down to the detail of what you’re actually going to do.  It’s way too easy to simply state ‘we need to grow our business’ – without concrete objectives, those plans will sit forevermore within their PowerPoint templates, never to see the light of day after their initial creation / review.

Why are they important?

To be honest – your Strategic Objectives are the heart and soul of your plan – without them, you have no plan!

More helpfully perhaps, the reason they’re important as distinct to your Actions (see below) is that jumping straight into Actions is a sure-fire way to either (a) miss opportunities or (b) lose the connection between your Actions and your Vision Statement.

Your Actions

Actions are not strategic per-se. They are however absolutely critical, as without them your plan is nothing more than a statement of intent.  When we look at our experiences of working with clients – the strategic plans which have failed are the ones where Actions were not clearly defined – or were defined so slowly that the momentum of the strategic planning process was lost.

An Action should be even more specific and detailed than the Strategic Objective under which it sits.  It needs (ideally) not only a deadline, but also a metric and a unit of measurement (such as a $ value, or some other relevant KPI).

We did a review across a sample of completed Actions from the Cascade platform, and found that Actions that had a unit of measurement assigned to them (excluding ‘% complete’) were more than twice as likely to have been completed on time, than those which did not!

Actions are also your opportunity to assign accountability to the delivery of your plan.  Again, a common cause of strategic failure is that no-one actually owns the things that need to be done.  It’s for this reason that in Cascade, we actually force the user to assign an owner to each Action before allowing them to officially ‘Launch’ their plan.

Why are they important?

This is so critical, that I’m going to repeat it again here.  Accountability.

Actions have people’s actual names alongside them.  Don’t underestimate the power of that association when it comes to actually getting your stuff done!

Next Steps

This article “Strategic Planning 101” really is only the start of our journey when it comes to exploring the components of a good strategic plan.  We’ll be writing out specific blog posts over the coming weeks and months that address each aspect in more detail with plenty more examples and tips. I hope you enjoy our series on Strategic Planning 101 and would love to hear your thoughts and contributions either in the comments below or via social media!

Before you start creating your strategic plan, claim your FREE 14 day trial of Cascade

Cascade is the complete strategy execution platform and will help you to create your strategic plan and much more. Easy to use, incredibly powerful and trusted by some of the largest (and smallest) brands in the world. Pricing starts at $29 per month

Showing 6 comments
  • Mario Depaola

    Good article. Simple and right to the point, with clear step by step process.
    I have been using a very similar approach, with other words, starting with Vision, then the Value Proposition ( our “market entry door” to the Vision), and the Competences that we need to have (to materialize the Value prop), followed by Key Initiatives ( same meaning of Strategic Objectives) and Actions. I place ownership at the Competence level for Corporate managers.

  • Evelyn Tuuta

    It is important to have a frame to shape thoughts and ideas into a flow It helps identify the pathways and opportunities presenting in the myriad of thoughts and ideas Where it goes to is the next step

  • Michael Coveney

    At the 64,000 ft level this is fine. What I am missing here is the link to business processes – i.e. how does the organisation today generate income, deliver goods/services, support clients, and develop new products/services. This is what I call ‘business as usual’ with strategic planning challenging the activities that make up those processes and deciding on what activities need to change/delete/added. To my mind, strategy has to be in the context of what the organisation is currently doing so that a plan can be made on how change can be implemented.

    • Tom Wright

      Hi Michael – yes you’re absolutely right. This is the tip of the ice-berg. What we found when we built out Cascade was that the strategic planning process above was a great starting point, but to achieve true results, it has to rapidly ‘cascade’ down to KPIs, operational metrics and performance management. We offer all those modules now within Cascade, as a natural offshoot of strategy.

  • Art Hunt

    Strategy is the intersection of vision, risk, capacity, economics, timing, demand, and execution. The strategic plan must address each of these areas. One final thought – a strategic plan has an infancy of about six months. If you are not in the execution phase after six months, you are probably behind your competition.

  • musab

    Thanks a lot for the crystal clear article. My question is how to interrelate the strategic planning with the Target Operating Model especially during organizational change management or transformation situations?

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