Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Most Important Question to Ask in Strategic Planning Process

Strategic planning has become a ritual in many organizations these days. Once the planning process is over and a nicely bound copy of plan delivered to the board, everyone forgets about it. Companies usually do this once every year, and in the non-profit sector, I have seen this done usually every 3-5 years, though some still do every ten years.

Ask any senior director or manager as what were the key elements of the strategic plan, well, you will get no more than a pie-in-the-sky narration of the dream, or a waffle for as long as you have patience to listen. Either way, as a consultant, you are still left wondering what all these mean.

Walking into an organization, whether you are reading their strategic plan, or listening to the bosses explain their take on it, you wonder where have you heard all this before. I read so many of these plans that now a days they all look very similar. You would hardly recognize if you are in organization X, or Y.

What passes for strategic is often a matter of operational plan or simply a rehash of the left-overs from the previous plans. When you talk to the frontline staff or the middle managers, not many of them even would have seen the plan, at least not when they are meant to be implementing it.

This reminds me of a great Indian economist who once said, speaking of India's national development plans, that the plans had two parts. The first part was the poetry part which had all the great sounding words which rhymed with everybody and which leaders loved for their powerful sound bytes.

The second part gets down to details - having got the poetry part out of the way, planners then embark on the serious business of sabotaging everything the poetry said, and making sure that the poetry remained on paper.

Pretty much the same thing can be said of strategic planning in organizations.

Some months ago, I was doing a review for an European organization. I read their strategic plan which had, as any good strategic plan ought to have, an account of their mission, vision and values. When I met the senior management and CEO, they all had a consistent understanding of what were already stated in the plan.

However, about half an hour into our discussion, something interesting happened as I asked a silly question. The CEO had articulated his vision and how the mission and values were being brought to bear on their day-to-day work in the organization, and I asked, ''what will all these do for your organization?''

The CEO again repeated the vision in more or less the way he had articulated earlier, with some minor changes to his language.

I asked again, "okay, if you achieved this, what will this do for your organization?" The answer was again slightly different, but the language was becoming more 'practical' - what I would call 'real and measurable'.

We continued this for another ten minutes while I kept slightly changing the last part of the question - instead of, 'what will it do for your organization', I asked, 'what will it do for your customers?' - as the CEO was definitely enjoying this 'repeat' question, and his directors were now intently listening to what he was saying.

At the end of fifteen minutes when I summarized what I had heard the strategic aims were, there was not just strong nods from the group, but also an acknowledgment that this will help them articulate the strategic aims for staff lower down the line.

By : Abhijit_Bhattacharjee

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