Use Your Strategic Plan Like It’s Your Budget!

Strategic plans have a lot in common with budgets. They are both plans for the future that outline some expectations. But few organizations hold themselves accountable to the goals in their strategic plans the same way they do with budgets. I think they are equally as important to your future success.

I’ve seen a lot of strategic plans over the years. I’ve been involved in facilitating the development of more than a dozen of them just in the last few years. Although I’ve gotten better at helping to create them, it requires a lot of time and effort to build a process and format that will meet the specific needs of each individual client. I’ve also learned that although the strategic directions or goals chosen by organizations often fall along similar lines, no two plans are alike and the path to achieving a particular direction or goal can be dramatically different. Most importantly, I’ve learned that a failure to develop a detailed plan that outlines how your organization will achieve its goals or directions and a willingness to regularly monitor progress too often ends in lack-luster results. Or even no results. You need to truly own your goals or directions by breaking them down into measurable and achievable pieces or steps. Just as a budget wouldn’t simply include a broad statement of intention to not spend more than you earn without also including a detailed plan to back it up, a plan for the future of your organization shouldn’t end with vague statements about what you want to achieve. The best plans are the ones that include specific targets or benchmarks broken down for specific periods of time. If your plan is to grow, by how much and when? In what areas? And what will the measure of success be? Revenue growth? Additional clients served? More program offerings? You really have to nail it down so that you understand what success looks like. We ask our front line staff to ‘show their work’ in developing detailed individual plans with their clients so that success can be measured (i.e., SMART goals). It seems fair and reasonable that we should do the same with our strategic plans.

The work of monitoring your progress means regular review and reporting out on those specifics. I know of a few successful organizations that complete mini environmental scans and strategic plan reviews at least once a quarter. Monitoring allows you to hold yourself accountable. It also gives you the opportunity to acknowledge when you’re wrong or when you need to change course in the face of unforeseen challenges or a quickly changing landscape. The good news is that by regularly monitoring your progress, you’ll know relatively quickly what isn’t working and what needs to change. We all make mistakes. But as I pointed out in another blog post, they should be celebrated because they are seeds of real growth and learning.

So how do you arrive at a great plan? There are lots of approaches to strategic planning and most have merit. For the analysis work, some prefer SWOT type approaches while others prefer SOAR – or even a blend of the two. There are also different approaches for structuring both the development process and the actual detailed plan. I prefer the Balanced Scorecard approach because it starts with mission and vision and then drives you layer by layer down into the detail. Perhaps most importantly, you need someone with a steady hand (internally and/or externally) to guide the process. Someone willing to ask tough questions. Someone able to drill into the detail. I truly believe that a realistic and detailed plan that is monitored as if your future depended on it (like a budget) is a critical element to organizational success. Although there will always be unforeseen circumstances, fortune really does favor those who are prepared and paying close attention!

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