I hate excuses. I think that the old way of creating long form strategic plans is an exercise in preemptively creating excuses for your business. Strategic plans are so often argued over, passively decided on and luxuriously spiral bound for businesses that haven’t yet done the work necessary to truly understand the impact of the decisions they are (or aren’t) making in their business. My favorite offenders are the one-page downloads that promise to, in one-page, definitively nail down the over-arching strategy you’re going to implement or execute on in your business. Definitively. All that stuff that looks just like strategic planning busy work is just that, it’s busy work and a scapegoat for you to blame your business shortcomings on later.
Don’t get it twisted though, I’m not at all down on crafting strategy for your business. Articulating goals is great. Teasing out effective ways for you to track whether or not your efforts are pushing you towards those goals, even better. Evaluating the decisions you make everyday against the backdrop of the vision and values you and your business stand for, the best. I’m just down on how maybe some institutions frame strategic planning…<<cough cough>> Some bad “business” mentors/consultants <<cough cough>>
But, that’s hard.
Getting to real understanding and depth in your business and for your customers means doing the work to understand more than just what you do and what you offer. It means getting to the heart of why your consumers choose (and maybe keep choosing) you, quantifying the real value you offer (not what you think you offer) and the ability to objectively identify what’s working and not working in your business.
Let’s set the scene. You're a new-ish business owner. (In business for yourself for less than 3 years.) You’ve been at your craft for a while, have moved a few units and/or have delivered a some hours of your services. You believe you bring value to your target market and you may even have a few testimonials on your website that support that claim. You wake up one morning and decide that you need strategy to get your business to the next level. That’s what you’ve read on the internet from your favorite “teach you how to build a business” business guru so it must be true. You’re first, albeit unintentional, excuse as to why you haven’t grown into the lifestyle or business size that you want is that you haven’t had a good strategy.
So you set off one morning and Google all kinds of fun strategic planning based keywords and over and over again you see the same kinds of results:
Articles about the Balanced Scorecard
Software/Web-App Planning Tools
Assortment of colleges and university course resources
Great. Now what?
I know what. You download the worksheets, read the blog posts, listen to a few podcasts and probably even peruse a few HBR articles. That’s great, you just spent hours getting your learn on. I’m all for learning but your shotgun scatter patterned attempt at muscling through how to create a strategic plan has forced you to a cross roads. Also on top of that, you’re still not even sure what the value of a strategic plan is for you and your business. #mixedmessages
At this point you’re making a choice.
You are either going to keep powering through and are going to try to recreate a strategic plan from some template or example and try to force what you “think” is important into a mold that most likely has nothing to do with who you are and what your business actually does.
Or you’ll quit. You’ll quit and move on and rationalize that you are too busy, too small or that crafting strategy really isn’t right for YOUR business.
Both are terrible but, are totally natural reactions. It’s the result of oversaturation/information overload, you're wrestling with how to spend what scarce resources you can muster on this task and business guru’s trying to package some program to sell you in a $497 ecourse.
That’s why strategic plans are the worst. You just spent all this time trying to figure it out and have made your way to creating something that is not at all authentic to you and your business or you move on from it all together.
Strategy is important and it hurts my heart that business owners never get to see the value of good strategy. Strategy that comes from deliberately thinking through problems and opportunities and actively participating in the choices that come from that thinking process.
Instead of trying to slap together some word document that you’ll only reference once or twice a year try this instead.
The Strategic Un-Planning Process
Below I’m going to outline an example process that you could use in lieu of the templates you just downloaded that I bet will work better for you and matter more to you. It’s not the be-all-end-all in strategic planning but if I can at least help one person who’s reading this create something that has the potential to be a real asset over some generic nonsense it’s 100% worth it.
1. Figure out what your long game really is for your business and be able to articulate that long game. Is it a specific idea of what you’re life will look like, some large financial goal or building a legacy business. That’s going to be the big idea you measure the choices you make everyday against.
2. In smaller intervals what kinds of goals are you going to have to hit to get to your long game. In strategic planning speak these would be your strategic aspirations. Is it buying a building, controlling 40% of your market share, selling one-billion hamburgers? Again get specific.
3. Repeat number two again but do that process for each of the individual goals you listed from step two. That should get you to a place where you can identify the actions you need to keep track of on a daily/weekly/monthly basis to get you to those goals. I’m all for impact and engagement but to be the most effective you need to associate actions with dollars.
4. Look outside your business. Talk to your customers about the value they really get from your offerings. What are the biggest pain points that customers can specifically share with you that you’ve solved. This will help you get even more focused in your offering and how to better position it in the market.
Before we move on I just want to recap what you will have really done up until this point. Going from 1-4 means you’ll have honestly reflected on what matters most to you, you’ll have broken down to at least two tiers worth of goals that you need to hit to get there and started to work out why people are engaging with you to better frame the actions you need to take to get more customers through the door. We are flying through these steps in a very simplistic way but this is all the work that I talked about in the beginning of this post.
5. Look at your business. Really, truly, objectively look at your business. Do your day to day actions reflect the value that you bring to the market? What does it cost to get one more customer? Is there a gap between what you planned to do at the start of your business and what you are actually doing? Are you making excuses right now because there’s a little bit of dissonance stirring in your brain about this stuff? It’s time to do something about that right now. You need to DECIDE what the actions are in your business that are the biggest drivers in how you deliver value as well as get in front of potential new customers. If you’re struggling with this part I’ve built a decision making framework that you can download for free. (Notice it’s not a one-page strategic planning template. You’re welcome.)
6. Pick a handful of actions to really focus on in your business. Think of them as strategic themes. These are the types of work that align best with what’s important to you, your customers and what you want the business to stand for. Figure out what success for each of those actions looks like in a quantifiable way and how each of those themes will get you to your short, mid and long game goals.
7. Get to work and stick to it! What gets measured, gets managed. This is where the work really begins because here you’re working to prove the hypotheses you created for yourself. Just like in 7th grade science class you need to collect data and that data comes from getting your hands dirty. Creating and managing strategy is a daily practice and it works best when you can make decisions against the outcomes your actions are showing you. No winging it, no shortcuts, no more guessing about what you think people want - just data.
8. Rinse and repeat as necessary. What’s important to you may change over time and being honest about that is what makes strategy work. If you’re long game changes, your goals change or your market changes it’s ok. It just means that scale and scope of your work needs to change. This is where old timey strategic plans fall flat on their faces. When you or your business change, your work has to change or else your productivity and the quality of your outputs are going to drastically deteriorate. Think about the last time you worked on something you hated. You probably did the minimum and just went through the motions. If you are building a business I’m guessing that you don’t want to find yourself just going through the motions. Your customers probably don’t want that either.
I hope that if this blog post did anything for anyone it at least saved you a few hours of mindlessly searching for strategic planning resources on the interweb. This post was not designed to be a conclusive resource for your strategic planning needs but it was designed to challenge you to think. If you are pressed for time or resources I like to think that I’ve also offered you an abridged approach to creating something that matters for you personally.
Strategic planning is really a personal (business personal?) process and it’s not something you can just hammer out in a one page template and expect any real results. It’s a process that you have to work at everyday and one that requires you to get brutally truthful with. The people that buy from you or that you’d like to buy from you aren’t stupid, they know when what you’re offering is lip service. Customers know what authenticity is and how to hunt for the most value. Strategy at its core is about making decisions to so that your customers can find that value.
So, are you making decisions everyday that will match what you’re offering and how you deliver with the needs of the people that you serve?