How to Embrace the Changing Nature of Strategic Plans

By David Silverstein

In military parlance, it’s said that the war plan never survives first contact with the enemy. And ever since the Western world has become mired in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, we’ve learned this to be true. The same has been said about business (substitute “competitor” for “enemy,” of course); however, it is also said that, “it’s about the planning, not the plan,” which suggests that the value in a plan is not the plan itself—it’s the planning that went into it.

The planning process is about preparation. It’s about careful analysis of strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats. It’s about scenario analysis. It’s about idea generation. It’s about risk management. Good planning means we are ready to face any threat or seize any opportunity. In short, it means we’re ready…for anything.

When it comes to organizational strategy, too often the plan isn’t actually developed by the people who “fight on the battlefield.” Can you imagine a general hiring an outside consultant to develop the war plan? The point: If you aren’t part of developing your strategic plan, how can you adapt as the world around you changes?

Strategy: By You, For You

That’s what we, at the Lean Methods Group, think it is so very important that our clients develop strategy themselves. We love to help—and we’re good at it—but you need to own it. We can help you prepare, facilitate, even steer the conversation and provide our own ideas and recommendations, but it has to be your strategy, not ours. Being ready for anything—the ability to bob, weave, pivot and adapt—hinges on you developing deep context and understanding of your strategy.

It is so very important that our clients develop strategy themselves.

Some key questions you must always be ready to ask after your strategy has been developed:

  • Why did you choose the path you chose?
  • What options were considered and dismissed?
  • Under what circumstances should they be revisited?
  • What risks did you consider?
  • What contingency plans did you make?
  • What decisions did you leave open?

Too many strategy consulting firms are in the business of recommending entire strategies. Their methodology consists primarily of interviewing the client, doing some benchmarking against other organizations, perhaps combined with some market research, and drafting a recommended strategy. The Lean Methods Group would never do that; instead, we offer specific ideas or recommendations if a client is hitting a wall, but then we help them vet those recommendations—which means challenging and questioning our ideas right along with theirs.

Preparation: Asking Questions

Defining a strategic direction—a viable, differentiated and truly unifying direction for the business—is difficult for every organization. Just like in the rest of life and business, to be successful with strategy we need to ask lots of questions—about the market, our competition, what we do well, what we don’t do well, growth opportunities and much, much more. Here’s a sampling of some questions we ask on the front-end of strategy development:

  • Can you articulate your strategy in two or three sentences?
  • Does everyone understand it? Do they believe in it?
  • What is your fundamental basis of competition?
  • What differentiates you? Not, “what do you do well?” but rather, “what do you do well that no one else does really well”?
  • What are the five to seven most important capabilities\characteristics\assets you have to work with?
  • Could someone looking in from the outside read your strategy and know it’s describing you and only you?

Learning to ask questions—the hard questions, the revealing questions, the politically incorrect questions—and the willingness to challenge each other and ourselves ensures that you’re prepared and that you derive the most value from the planning process.

Owning the Plan

So, when we talk about how to embrace the changing nature of strategic plans, you are the key. In the end, it must be YOUR strategy, developed by you, owned by you, executed by you. At the Lean Methods Group, our job is to make sure you do…and that you do it well!

David Silverstein is the CEO and founder of the Lean Methods Group. He is a frequent public speaker and author.