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Choosing a direction for success

Steve DeBruynSteve DeBruyn
CIBM Contributor

You've heard it a thousand times: When you fail to plan, you plan to fail. It sounds like a slogan from a motivational poster in the lunch room. The phrase itself is somewhat dated, but the idea behind it is not. Experience shows that organizations that lay out a plan for the future have a greater chance of long-term success.

Of course, having a plan doesn't guarantee success. Some businesses succeed without ever coming close to having a strategic plan. On the other hand, there are many more organizations that are competitive, innovative and successful specifically because they drew a map from point A to point B before setting off on their journey.

Strategic planning is for everyone.

Big corporations are not the only organizations that use strategic planning to establish goals and take actions to reach them. Nonprofits, businesses, government units, families and even individuals can answer four important questions by going through a visioning process to establish:

bullet Where are we today?

bullet Where do we want to be tomorrow?

bullet What steps should we take to get where we want to be?

bullet Who are the people who will get us there?

Without a vision, a business can just drift along for years. Some grow modestly by responding to immediate needs. But the organizations that are proactive and chart their own course through a clear vision are the ones that stay competitive, grow and have the greatest success. They tend to be the leaders.

The question remains: "Why should I take my business through a formal strategic planning process?" Every strategic planning expert has a different list of benefits. Most of them include:

bullet Producing a common vision and purpose

bullet Establishing common goals

bullet Developing ways of reaching those goals

bullet Suggesting specific actions needed to get there

bullet Creating the opportunity and means for measuring your success

Strategic planning is a management tool, not a goal unto itself. If the management team produces a nicely bound report and then puts it on a shelf and leaves it there, the whole exercise has been a waste of time. Planning must be followed by action. At the same time, the most you can expect a strategic plan to do is to point you in the right direction and outline your target - your vision. Making it work depends on commitment and implementation from everyone in your organization.

Strategic shouldn't be outsourced. Consultants add expertise and insight that may not exist in house, and they act as the engine that drives the process forward. But ultimately, strategic planning must be an internal process involving management and employees from all levels. Team input promotes ownership and buy-in, both of which are critical to the success of a strategic plan.

Start by defining your purpose. Why does your organization exist? Aside from manufacturing widgets or building new homes, can you express what you do in human terms? You're not just building homes, you're fulfilling the dream of home ownership. Your widgets might make a job easier, save time and money, or add value to another product or service.

Defining what your organization does can be boiled down to a mission statement. Management has been known to get hung up on writing the perfect mission statement. But all that this sentence or two really needs to state is the purpose of your organization. It doesn't need to be complicated or lofty. It needs to be an honest picture of what your business does.

For example, Nike's mission is, "To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world." Notice that it says nothing about shoes or apparel or any other item in the company's vast product line. It is long on vision and short on detail, and yet it serves as a focal point for the company's worldwide business activities.

Next, set some goals. Goals let you look at how you will accomplish your mission. They should be much more specific than your mission, but stop short of saying how the goal will be reached. For example, "Reduce by 25 percent the time it takes to bring a new widget to market."

Brainstorm with your strategic planning team to establish a handful of solid goals based on past performance, the competition, financial indicators, government regulations, customer demand and other business environmental factors. Conditions change, and your goals may have to be modified to address those changes, but for now, these should be the biggest targets on your horizon.

Consider what strategies will help you reach your goals. What approach will you take to reach your goal? To reduce the lead time for introducing a new widget, you might need to revamp your research and development department, rethink the production process or change your distribution network. The best strategy is often a combination of several approaches. Be flexible and willing to try something different if one strategy isn't working.

Put your strategy into action. The number one priority as you implement your plan should be communication early, often and with every employee. Remember, buy-in is a make-or-break proposition. Without it, progress could be slow, if at all. Be careful not to simply dictate what needs to happen in various areas of the business. No one has a stake in the outcome if they're simply following directions. Everyone needs to understand specific goals and how their performance will help reach them.

Monitor and measure your progress. Mileage signs along the road serve two purposes: they assure you that you are making progress, and they tell you how close you are to your destination. Build checkpoints into your strategic plan for the same reason. Everyone - management, support staff, employees, dealers - needs to know if you are making progress toward your goals. By setting benchmarks, you also give yourself the opportunity to modify your strategy.

Keep it simple, keep it moving. Strategic planning isn't rocket science, but it is smart business. Why else would so many corporations put so much effort into crafting and implementing a strategic plan? They know that there is too much at stake to leave their success to chance.

If the thought of strategic planning is too intimidating, ask for help - just make sure the consultant you choose understands your business. There are a lot of strategic planning templates and textbook solutions available, but the best answers are going to be the ones that are specifically for you.

Reactive or proactive? You can sit back and react to everything the competition throws at you. Or you can anticipate those challenges and create strategies that grow and strengthen your business proactively. In the end, the value of strategic planning is not in the plan itself, but in the teamwork it takes to create it, and the direction and focus that teamwork generates.

-Steve DeBruyn is a CPA and managing partner of Clifton Gunderson LLP. He can be reached at 217-351-7400 or