Strategic Planning's Magic Question

To get from Point A to Point B with effectiveness and confidence, strategic-thinking businesses answer “How?”


colorful question marksHow do we get it done? What’s our next move? Now that we know what we want and why we’re here, where do we begin?

You’ve likely heard variations of these questions in your business — particularly if you’re involved in strategic planning.

It’s one thing to know why you’re doing something, whom you’re selling to, or even what makes your product or service better than the next company’s. But until you can adequately and effectively answer the how, your idea, product, sales or whatever you endeavor to achieve may not become all you hope for.

“How?” begs for a coherent approach. It means building a distinct advantage toward a favorable end. This level of “How?” is best answered with strategy.

Strategic planning exists to solve problems. More often than not, calling on strategic planning means your problem is big — significant, complex and with higher-than-average stakes. That’s why we call on strategy. It is the means to simplify and unify activity to get from your Point A to Point B with greater clarity, effectiveness, confidence and efficiency.

Planning without strategy is like feeling around in the dark. You may eventually find what you’re looking for, but it will most certainly be unpredictable, take longer than anticipated, and you run a greater risk of falling on your face along the way.

Here are three things you need to know about strategic planning to adequately answer any big “How?” and to improve your strategic planning process, no matter what the challenge.

1. Strategy is about choice.

Strategy is a word and concept that is abused today. People love to use it because it sounds, well, strategic. Unfortunately, calling something a strategy doesn’t make it one. Strategy, to function as it’s intended, means choosing — making significant choices throughout the planning process. In any complex or challenging situation, such choices are hard. Something must be sacrificed to move in a true and distinct direction. If you’re not making hard choices in your planning, you need to ask yourself and others how distinct, clear and achievable is your approach?

Consider this example: When Steve Jobs returned to a struggling Apple in 1997, one of the first things he chose to do was to stop selling so many products. He put an end to more than 70% of Apple’s products (laying off more than 3,000 employees in the process) to focus on a handful of innovative products.

This hard choice enabled Apple to focus its resources around innovation — developing something game changing. The result? The Apple iPod.

There’s little doubt that Jobs’ efforts would have been significantly more difficult and unclear if he had not made this critical strategic choice.

2. Strategy fits between goals and plans.

Strategy is not the most important thing. But good strategy is necessary and often critical to be successful. Once you’ve defined your goals, strategy comes next. To delineate between goals, strategy and plans:

Goals answer, “What is the end for the effort?”

Strategy answers, “In what way are we going to coordinate our efforts to get there?”

Plans answer, “What are the blueprints for success?”

A good example of this hierarchy can be seen in the successful approach of the chief Allied powers (France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States) during World War II.

The goal clearly was to win the war — to defeat the Axis powers (mainly Germany, Italy and Japan). In December 1941, the United States was faced with the prospect of a two-front war. Without a clear strategy, plans undoubtedly would have been murky. However, the overwhelmingly critical factor was the clear and growing threat of Germany to Europe and Russia.

Therefore, the Allies made the critical strategic decision to focus first on taking back Europe and defeating Germany. The resulting plans included the D-Day invasion of Normandy (effectively thwarting a German invasion of Britain) by the United States, the Allied movement upward from Northern Africa and the Russian forces fighting the Nazi army to the east.

3. Strategy marries strength with opportunity.

The beauty of strategy is that it coordinates and integrates activities around a common goal. What’s more, good strategy finds the sweet spot where strengths meet opportunity. If you identify an opportunity, yet have no strengths to take advantage of it, how effective will you be? Likewise, if your strengths abound in a certain area, yet no opportunities exist, your strategy could come up short.

Know that to improve the odds of achieving your goals, your strategy will need to amplify your strengths, while playing to the opportunities at hand. A great example of this can be seen in the way Procter & Gamble has nearly cornered the consumer packaged goods market. With its humble beginnings in soap and candles in the 1800s, P&G slowly and methodically built a strength producing, packaging, marketing and selling packaged dry goods of all types.

Over the years, the company has taken advantage of opportunities to both develop new products and acquire its way into new product categories.

Today, the company’s product holdings cover close to 80 products spanning roughly seven categories of products we buy every day. P&G has employed different business strategies over the years but always has weighed opportunity in light of the company’s inherent strengths.

Whatever your challenge, follow these three fundamental principles for better strategic planning. Your strategy will be both clearer and more coherent. What’s more, you will be closer to more successful outcomes sooner.


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