How do you put the strategic in strategic planning?

When it’s time to get down to planning, tactical people start thinking about how they’re going to accomplish a set of tasks, perhaps even with goals in mind. When thinking about the year ahead, a tactical leader’s mind will jump to software purchases, staffing needs, new projects, and allocating resources.

Strategic leaders, on the other hand, start by assessing what they need to accomplish to meet their goals. Once a strategic leader understands what needs to happen in the coming year, she can start thinking about how to accomplish those goals while keeping the bigger picture at the center of the planning process.

The strategic leader’s process sounds good in theory, but in practice is can be difficult to pull off—particularly if you aren’t used to thinking strategically. To contextualize the planning process, we like the four-phase PDSA framework: Plan, Do, Study, Act.

plan do study act
  1. PLAN: collaboratively create your strategic plan. What are you going to do? Is it the right thing to do? How will you know you’ve done it? Ask the right business impact questions.
  2. DO: execute your plan. When and how did or will you do it? Answer your business impact questions.
  3. STUDY: interpret the answers to your business impact questions. Were the answers what you expected? Where should you stay the course? What changes will you have to make based on what you’ve learned? What decisions do you need to make to create your desired changes?
  4. ACT: take action to make the desired change. Based on the evidence you have collected by answering your business impact questions, make decisions that will drive continuous organizational improvement.

Many organizations use the PDSA process without realizing it. That is, they plan for work to make a change, gather data, figure out what is going on, and then make the change. We like the PDSA model because it formalizes that informal process and ensures that you don’t skip any steps. By formalizing the process, everyone understands what will happen next. It’s a useful model even when you are pursuing your own personal and career goals—you don’t have to wait for greater organizational responsibility to start using it. However, as you move higher in an organization and gain more complex responsibilities, the PDSA process also becomes more complex. As a strategic leader, you put great emphasis on the planning part. It’s equally important that you study and learn from what you do so that you can act in the spirit of continuous improvement.

Smart decisions and desired outcomes are entirely dependent upon strong planning.

Albert Einstein was once asked how he would spend his time if he were given a problem upon which his life depended and he had only one hour to solve it. He responded by saying that he would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and five minutes solving it. Strategic leaders understand the importance of planning and thinking through the problem before jumping into action. This is how they are able to make smart, informed decisions.

If you don’t know where to start with your planning, business impact questions help you dig into your role in an organized fashion. When we talk about business impact questions, we are really keeping the end in mind by thinking about answers: what information does the business need to continually win? The questions must be focused to meet the needs of stakeholders and dictate the scope of your efforts. Focus is essential when you go wading into the sea of information. Once you understand what is critical to know, you can select the appropriate method for finding the answers—otherwise you become overwhelmed by data.

When we say business impact questions, we mean those questions designed to demonstrate the value of the function as a whole, such as “Are we delivering on our promise to our clients?” or “Are we delivering the value expected?” The business questions are closely aligned to the corporate goals.

Remember: purpose dominates method, or the why dominates the how when it comes to answering your business impact questions later. That means that a tool, available data, cutting-edge analytics, or a stakeholder’s opinion doesn’t dictate the type of analysis you conduct.

Don’t allow available metrics, data, software, or vendors to dictate your business impact questions.

Your business impact questions dictate these things. Ask the important questions, and later you will determine how to answer them. Put the why and what before the how. When you’re crafting business impact questions, you’re building a framework. You’ll come back later and figure out how to hit that target, access the necessary data to see if you’re on track, and perform the right type of analysis to answer your business impact questions.

Do you want to learn more about strategic leadership? Are you a tactical leader who needs to elevate your planning and execution to make strategic contributions to your business? Learn how to build your ladder to the top of the jungle and get a copy of our book on Amazon.