Write a strategic plan – step by step guide

In our last couple of blog posts, we talked about how to reflect on past successes and failures as well as how to choose the right strategy tools and methodologies. Now we get to the fun bit – our step by step guide to help you write a strategic plan that really works. Here’s where our mini-series is up to:

1.Reflect on how you did last year

2.Choosing the right strategy tools

3.Writing your strategic plan

4.Sharing your plan with others

5.Launch and communicate your strategy

6. tips to help your strategy to succeed

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 power ful and trusted by some of the largest (and smallest) brands in the world. Pricing starts at $29 per month

As you go through the post and write a strategic plan, you may want to read more about the different steps. Don’t worry though, we have individual posts that cover each section to write a strategic plan in detail. Before we get into the detail, here are a few free resources that will help a lot along the way:

  1. Strategic Plan Template – our offline excel based template that you can fill in as you write a strategic plan.
  2. Vision Statement Toolkit – our downloadable toolkit for helping you to create the perfect vision statement as you write a strategic plan.
  3. Sample Strategic Plan – an example of the strategic plan you will end up with (this one was generated by our cloud based strategy tool – sign up for a free trial here)

OK, last thing before we start – here’s a reminder of the framework we’ll be using to write a strategic plan:

write a strategic plan

 

Follow our 5-step guide to write a strategic plan :

  • Step1: Write the perfect vision statement
  • Step2: Create your organizational values
  • Step3: Create focus areas for your strategy
  • Step4: Write organizational goals / strategic objectives
  • Step5: Share your plan!

Step 1: Write the perfect vision statement

(Click here to read our complete article: How to write a good vision statement)

So why do we need a vision statement to write a strategic plan, and what exactly is it supposed to achieve? It’s to:

  • Create the pinnacle of our strategy funnel. So every significant action will ultimately be contributing towards the vision.
  • Provide a memorable and inspirational goal that describes our reason for existence as an organization. One that helps motivate our people attract high quality new hires.
  • Serve as a succinct statement on what our organization is trying to achieve. This will help third parties such as investors or the media better understand us.
  • Be a ‘limiter’ that helps us to rule out certain opportunities which do not ultimately contribute to our vision.

What a vision statement SHOULD be:

There are a few common rules that pretty much all good vision statements should follow:

  1. They should be short. Two sentences at an absolute maximum.  It’s fine to expand on your vision statement with more detail, but you need a version that is punchy and easily memorable.
  2. They need to be specific to your organization and describe a unique outcome that only you can provide. Generic vision statements that could apply to any organization won’t cut it!
  3. Don’t use words that are open to interpretation.  For example, saying you will ‘maximize shareholder return’ doesn’t actually mean anything unless you specify what it actually looks like.
  4. Keep it simple enough for people both inside and outside your organization to understand.  No technical jargon, no metaphors and no business buzz-words please!
  5. It should be ambitious enough to be exciting but not too ambitious that it seems achievable.  Really, it’s not a matter of time-framing your vision, because that will vary by organization, but certainly anything that has a time frame outside of 3 to 10 years should be challenged.
  6. It needs to align to the values that you want your people to exhibit as they perform their work. We’ll talk more about values later, but once you’ve created those values later on, revisit your vision to see how well they gel.

The Process

a) Define what you do as an output

Start by being exceptionally clear about what it is your organization actually does.  Be careful to remain ‘output focused’ rather than ‘input focused’.  For example, Microsoft famously had a vision statement to Put a Microsoft powered computer on every desk in the world (slightly paraphrased).  Strictly speaking what Microsoft ‘do’ is make computer software, but for the purposes of their Vision, they looked forward to the actual outcome of this process – i.e. computers on desks. Let’s look at some other hypothetical examples: A bakery makes bread. But the outcome is consumers enjoying that bread. A consulting company gives advice.  But the outcome is the success of others based on that advice. A government department does…lots of things. But the outcome is better lives for the citizens they serve.

b) Define what unique twist your organization brings to the above outcome

Very few products or services these days are truly new. Most are more like reinventions of something that exists already, but with a different approach, focus or spin. At some point in your organization’s lifespan – someone will have believed that the reason that THIS organization would be successful where others have failed, was because of………something. You need to define that something!

Let’s take our bakery example.  So far, our vision statement is looking pretty generic, along the lines of customers enjoying our bread.  But why will they enjoy our bread MORE than the bread from the place next door?  Is it because we use centuries old traditions passed through generations of our family? Because we only use premium grade locally sourced ingredients?  Whatever your unique selling point is – let it shine through in your vision statement.

c) Apply some high-level quantification

A common problem with vision statements is ironically, that they are too visionary!  With no possible end in sight (or a totally unrealistic one). The initial inspiration derived from a great vision statement can quickly turn to frustration, or even cynicism among employees and customers. That said – don’t be too specific or apply specific metrics at this stage (they will come later in our planning process).

Sticking with our bakery example – we might want to refine our target audience to ‘every customer who walks through the door’. Or maybe we want to be bolder: ‘every customer within walking distance of a store’. The quantification we apply could also be industry specific if you’re a B2B – are you shooting for SMEs or multinationals for example?

d) Add relatable, human, ‘real world’ aspects

OK, your vision by this point should be getting pretty close to being finished.  But one final trick you can apply to help make it even more memorable is to add a real-life aspect so that people can conjure up a solid mental image to associate with your vision statement.  Let’s look at an example – which of the following statements is likely to be more memorable:

a) To have every working person in the world using Microsoft product.

or…

b) A Microsoft powered computer on every desk.

I would argue that (b) is more memorable, because as I read this, I’m actually visualising a computer (in my case) sitting on a wooden desk in a room.  There’s nothing wrong with (a) but it’s highly conceptual and thus difficult to transform into a mental picture.  Let’s look at another example for our bakery: “Ensure that every customer who leaves our store, does so smiling.”

Here, using the word ‘smiling’ as apposed to ‘happy’ is powerful, because it conjures a mental image of a person smiling. It won’t always be possible to bring this level of tangibility to your vision statement – but if it is, I would strongly encourage doing so.

e) Bring it all together

Let’s finish off with a look at what a completed vision statement could look like for our bakery. Based on the above:

Producing and selling locally sourced cakes and pies that are so delicious and satisfying, that every customer who leaves our store does so with a smile.

If we deconstruct this into our various steps, we can see each at work as follows:

Producing and selling locally sourced cakes and pies that are so delicious and satisfying, that every customer who leaves our store does so with a smile.

Step1 – The output
Step2 – The twist
Step3 – The quantification
Step4 – The human connection

And that’s it! If you’ve followed the above process, you should have a pretty strong vision statement to add as you write a strategic plan. But before you move one, circle back up to the top of this section, and make sure that your new vision delivers against the key outcomes of what a vision statement is meant to be. The next step to write a strategic plan is where you will create some organizational values.

Step 2: Create your organizational values

(Click here to read our complete article: Writing your organizational values)

Organizational values are sometimes viewed as superfluous. In many cases, employees and customers alike dismiss them as mere marketing gimmicks. Our view is different – we see values as a critical part of the strategic planning process. The reason being, that they go right to the heart of the most important ingredient of your strategy – your people.

Internal vs external values

This is the difference between creating values intended for your own people, vs values aimed at your customers or other stakeholders. We’re going to go out-on-a-limb here and say that in our own experiences, internal values are almost always more powerful for helping you to execute your plan, than external ones.

External values are always more prone to being gimmicky and marketing oriented. Not that there cannot be cross-over, or indeed a single set of values that apply to both. For the purpose of this article, we’re going to skew heavily towards internal values and how best to devise them.

Avoiding fluffy, vacuous values

Perhaps the single biggest reason that values are so often seen as gimmicky, is because they didn’t emerge ‘naturally’. In a perfect world, your values should really write themselves, as they should reflect the qualities and traits of the people you have already hired. Whenever we make decisions about whether to hire or work with someone, we unconsciously assess their values as part of that process.

Look at the people around you – those who the organization’s success truly relies upon – and ask yourself what it was that made you decide to work with them. With any luck, you’ll be able to identify shared and consistent values among those people. Shared Values help to create synergy – and a team of people working synergistically together will always be stronger then a group of disconnected individuals – no matter how smart they may individually be. It’s not a matter of dismissing individuality, but rather one of recognising the power of a tight set of core behaviours that everyone shares, understands and embraces.

The process in action

To give a tangible example, we wanted to share with you our internal set of values here at Cascade Strategy. In other articles in the series, we’ve used a hypothetical Bakery company for our examples – but values are simply too personal to be anything other than the genuine article. Here’s how we went about creating organizational values that we still stand by today:

Value 1: Learn everyday

Why?

We’re a small but growing organization. The strongest trait that our organization needs to achieve success is self-motivated people. Arguably the two most important drivers of this are a) a passion for what you do and b) the ability to genuinely enjoy your work and embrace it as a positive aspect of your life. In the long term, the only thing that can consistently deliver both a) and b) are a process of continued challenge and learning. Why do we enjoy games (sports, video games, board games, you name it…)? – We enjoy them because they’re challenging, and as we learn and improve, we apply that knowledge to move continuously forward – our reward is progress – and that progress gives a sense of pleasure. We applied exactly the same principle in devising our first organizational value.

How do we bring it to life?

We encourage and fully allow people to discover and work with the tools and technologies they want to learn. Then we empower them to implement the processes or techniques they wish to try, and research new ways of doing things. We allow them to change their minds and we never rebuke ‘failure’.

You can read more examples like this in our dedicated blog post on organizational values here.

A summary of the key steps you need to take

  1. Analyse the behavioural traits of those around you and identify themes
  2. Ask yourself what traits you will be looking for in your next hires
  3. Understand your own strengths and weaknesses as an organization – and try to create organizational values which will play to your strengths and mitigate your weaknesses
  4. Bring these things together in a set of values that are short both in number and in length (we suggest between 3 and 5 values as a rule of thumb – each no more than just a few words)
  5. Test these values by asking whether or not they resonate with your people – they must!
  6. Revisit your vision statement – are your values consist with your strategic vision? Will they take you closer to making it a reality?
  7. Don’t stop there – write down on a piece of paper why each value is important and tangibly what you will do to live it as an organization

To conclude, organizational values should be easy to write and should come out naturally. If you’re finding the process hard, it probably means you need to spend a bit more time getting to you know your people, or even yourself!

The next step to write a strategic plan requires you to create your focus areas.

Step 3: Create focus areas for your strategic plan

(Click here to read our complete article: Creating strategic focus areas)

Focus areas are the foundation stones when you write a strategic plan. They expand on your vision statement and start to create some structure around how to actually get your organization to achieve its goals.

A common question we receive from organizations using our cloud system Cascade is ‘How many focus areas should we create‘? The answer is in the question. How many things can you and your people realistically focus on at one time? In our experience, 3 to 6 is probably a reasonable range. Focus areas should be easy enough to remember so that any employee you bump into in a corridor should be able to easily recap them. Any more than 6 focus areas runs the risk of you being, well….unfocused!

One of the hardest things about choosing focus areas for your organization, is deciding what to leave out. You probably have a thousand things that you want to achieve, but one of the key outcomes of this process is to refine these things down to those that really matter in the here and now for your organization. The rule is, if an activity does not fit into one of your focus areas – it shouldn’t be happening – at least not right now. Sure there may be ’emergency exceptions’ here and there – but it’s important to commit to the process of refinement wholeheartedly, so spend enough time creating your focus areas to ensure they cover the gambit of everything you want to achieve.

Some rules of thumb for choosing focus areas

To help you create quality focus areas, we’ve devised the following checklist that by-and-large, all your focus areas should conform to:

a) No longer than 5 words each

Long winded focus areas are an oxymoron – if you can’t distill your focus into 5 words or less, keep refining it until you can – it needs to be simple and memorable.

b) Not too broad

Don’t cheat by creating broad focus areas like ‘Be profitable’ unless this really is a specific focus (e.g. for new startups) – this defeats the point of the exercise and doesn’t help you to focus at all!

c) No jargon

Avoid ambiguous terms like ‘maximize’ or ‘succeed’ – state what you are trying to achieve as an outcome, not how you are going to do it.

d) No metrics

Conversely, it might be tempting to add specific targets or metrics to your focus areas – avoid this. Metrics will absolutely come into play for your plan, but not at this stage. Keep things high level for now, but still outcome focused.

In truth, when we distill the various focus areas of clients we work with in Cascade, we can surmise that the vast majority fit into one of the following broad business objective categories. If you’re struggling for inspiration, think about which of the following categories you want your organization to focus on and build out some focus areas from there.

Categories

Expansion / Growth – e.g. Expand network to Asia Pacific
Revenue / Cost / Margin – e.g. Increase sales
Customer Satisfaction – e.g. Repeat business from customers
Compliance – e.g. Zero regulatory issues
Innovation – e.g. Launch new product lines
Engagement with a Stakeholder Group – e.g. Engage with our community
Employee Happiness – e.g. Proud & Happy Staff

You may well create focus areas that don’t fit into any of the categories above, but hopefully this list gives you a good starting point. The methodology is not dissimilar from ones such as the Balanced Scorecard and most other strategic frameworks for that matter.

In much the same way as for your vision and values – we would strongly encourage you to involve your key team members in the process of creating your focus areas. As always, the more involved people are in the creation process, the more empowered they will be to deliver them. There are many ways to do this, from running focus groups, issuing surveys and simply being responsive to ideas and suggestions as they come up as part of business-as usual. Some cloud platforms including our own Cascade incorporate tools to help you do just this. But, nothing beats a culture of open and honest communication where such discussions occur naturally. People’s pride and passion for the organization generates this type of discussion.

Now that you’ve create created your focus areas, the next step to write a strategic plan requires you to create organizational goals/ strategic objectives.

Step 4: Write organizational goals / strategic objectives

(Click here to read our complete article: A guide to writing strategic objectives)

Let’s start by defining what it is we’re talking about here. An organizational goal (or strategic objective if you prefer) is a specific goal that you want to achieve, with a clearly stated outcome and a deadline.  It differs from a focus area – in that it is specific and measurable, and once completed will be replaced by another, different goal.  In other words, it is something that can be tangibly achieved.

It is also one of the primary ‘goals’ of the organization, underneath which many sub-goals will eventually align.

The way I like to think of an organizational goal is:

If I was meeting with my investors / board – what would be the key programs / objectives that I would update them on if I only had an hour.

This is a useful way to ensure that your organizational goal are neither too high level to be relevant, nor too detailed to be overly operational.

How many organizational goals should I have?

There is of course no right answer here – though there are certainly risks if you get the number wrong.  Too few and you’re probably not stretching yourself.  Too many and you’re unlikely to achieve them all, which should absolutely be your intent.

As a rule of thumb – if we tie organizational goal into our bigger framework – we would probably suggest having between 2 and 4 organizational goals, per each of your focus areas.

How should I structure an organizational goal?

The main advice here is to keep things simple.  Organizational goals should be easy to remember and should be understandable by everyone within the organization.  That means no jargon (if possible), and keeping them to one sentence long.  You can add more detail of course, but you should be able to sum up what you want to achieve quickly and simply.

We suggest a structure as follows:

Action + Detail + Metric + Unit + Deadline

In other words:

Expand our international operations into 3 new markets by 21st December 2016

Starting off with a verb forces you to be specific about what you’re trying to do.  If you possibly can include a metric and a unit – do so.  It will help to keep you focused and honest when it comes to tracking your progress.   Having a deadline works in much the same way.

A nice thing about using this structure combined with a cloud based strategy platform is that you can do some pretty cool reporting on your goals – such as having the system analyse your ‘Action’ words to give you a flavor of how you’re approaching your strategy (Aggressively? Defensively? Etc.)

How do I ensure accountability?

Depending on the size of your organization, you may want to delegate some degree of accountability for individual organizational goals to your management team.  Ultimately, as the leader of your organization’s strategy – you still need to be accountable for all of the objectives. But, that doesn’t mean that you can’t share that ownership with someone else.

For organizational goal, we would strongly recommend having a maximum of two co-owners for each, including yourself.  Why?  Because any more than that, and you risk falling into a situation where people become overly reliant on ‘someone else’ to own the goal.  You can absolutely involve far more people in delivery – through a series of linked (or cascaded) sub goals.  But you want at most two people being responsible for the ultimate delivery of the organizational goal.

Some final suggestions and thoughts

Following the above outline should help get you off to a good start when it comes to writing organizational goals. Here are just a few more collected thoughts to round things out:

  • Don’t be afraid to iterate.  You probably won’t get things right first time, but sometimes you need to get your organizational goals out on paper to appreciate where the gaps are.
  • Involve the people of your organization as early as possible.  Don’t sit in a room and try to do things yourself.  Define your vision, values and focus areas – and use that to help structure a broader engagement with your team about what your organizational goals should be.
  • Consider publishing your organizational goals on your website.  Sometimes, for reasons of confidentiality this won’t be possible – but for some organizations (such as public sector or not-for-profits) this is a great way to communicate transparently with your stakeholders.  Here’s an example of how we do this in Cascade using our API: http://www.itsmycity.me

Finally, the last step to write a strategic plan requires you to share it.

Step 5: Share your plan!

We’ll be writing a dedicated post about this shortly, but to give you a heads up – the final step to write a strategic plan, is to share it. Share it with anyone and everyone that you trust, ask for their feedback, listen and be prepared to iterate. If you’re using a cloud platform, use the export functionality to create a pdf of your plan, and keep it with you wherever you go for the next few weeks – you never know who you’ll be speaking to and how they might be able to help.

Write a strategic plan: Check!

That’s it! Following along our guide to write a strategic plan should leave you with a pretty solid strategic plan to share with the rest of your organisation and other stakeholders.

Stay tuned for the next blog post, but for now good luck as you write a strategic plan, and as always, don’t hesitate you drop us a line if you need a bit of help (or if you would like to add tips to write a strategic plan)!

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 3 comments
  • Sandra Smith
    Reply

    Nice! I was on the site as this was published – 20 minutes later I’m feeling totally inspired to write our new plan. Thank you Tom, I like your approach to strategy and always read your articles.

  • Mihai Ionescu
    Reply

    How many companies, in which industries and countries, of which types and sizes, have reported significant benefits attributable to using your “version” of Strategic Planning process? For how many years have they developed what proved to be a good Strategy and executed it successfully, based on your guidelines?

    In your humbleness, you must have forgotten this: “The biggest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, is the illusion of knowledge”.- Stephen Hawking.
    .

    • Tom Wright
      Reply

      Hi again Mihai – I know you’ve commented quite a few times before on our material. In all fairness, what we’ve tried to do with the framework above is to take the most accessible aspects of common strategic planning frameworks, and package them in a way that is easy for just about anyone to implement. We’re not really trying to add to the body of knowledge on strategy, more to make strategic planning accessible to everyone. What I can say that is in 3 years, over a thousand organziations of all shapes and sizes have signed up to our cloud strategy platform Cascade (which also uses the above framework). We have a retention rate of paid customers of over 85% year on year. The industries who are using the platform are also extremely varied, though we probably have the most clients in the financial services, manufacturing and high-tech sectors.

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