Vital strategic planning: A clear, customizable framework

Vital strategic planning: A clear, customizable framework

The new year is a time when many organizations consider strategic planning.

Strategic planning is part of strategic management – a continuous process that draws together an entire enterprise, from senior management to work-teams, to envision a future and develop a strategy to achieve that future.

However, research indicates an average of 95 percent of employees are not engaged with their organization’s strategic plan. That is, they don’t understand their organization’s direction, and lack the emotional commitment needed to achieve strategic goals[1]

Furthermore, 98 percent of all businesses are small, with limited resources, great time constrains, and monumental scheduling challenges, with little capacity to invest in a laborious strategic planning process. Leaders who lack strategy expertise commonly describe strategic planning with words such as:

  • “Being lost in a haze, with no way out ”
  • “Boring ”
  • “Too complicated”
  • “Creating a shelf ornament”
  • “Lofty, but no implementation,” and
  • “A mysterious process.”

This is why I created a thorough, yet easy-to-understand three-part framework to help leaders shape a solid strategic planning process, written strategic plan, and goal tracking system.  I shaped a comprehensive approach to “Vital Strategic Planning” as follows.

Vital Strategic Planning =
the Strategic Planning Workshop

(the Shared Leadership Experience)

+

the Written Strategic Plan

(the Shared Story of Strategic Intent)

+

the System for Tracking and Communicating Results

(the Shared Goal Outcomesthis is Strategic Impact)

Your strategic planning workshop or series of strategy meetings

First, the workshop or series of strategy discussions is an organization’s essential platform for engaging employees in the strategic planning process, and inspiring their commitment to the organization’s future.

A vital strategic planning workshop or series of meetings (whether held in-person, virtually, or in a hybrid format), will prepare participants to become strategic, cross-functional leaders. All great strategic plans begin with a compelling workshop or ongoing strategy discussions —this creates a shared, human leadership experience.

The leadership team should plan a variety of ways to purposefully connect employees with strategy discussions. For example, managers and emerging leaders representing all divisions of an organization could be invited to participate in the strategic planning workshop or series of meetings – for parts of the process if not for the entire process.

I place enormous focus on carefully curating and delivering a powerful planning workshop for your strategy team. The strategy-shaping leadership experience can then be extended to all levels of your organization for deeper-dive unit discussions, creating a unifying experience throughout your firm.

The idea that a vibrant strategic planning workshop is the most important, first strategy step for any meaningful strategic plan—as a treasured, bonding, and indispensable leadership experience—flies in the face of conventional strategic planning.

The workshop itself can, and should be life-changing. By that I mean that your workshop or series of strategy meetings can, and should lead to an enhanced level of social capital – productive networks within your organization. Social capital is an asset leading to cooperation and coordinated action. This new level of social capital has potential to forge lifelong friendships, teamwork, and an unwavering commitment to work together toward a shared vision for your organization’s future success.

In today’s world of virtual work, the sense of “belonging” and “working toward common goals” is perhaps the most powerful weapon against the loneliness epidemic – feelings of isolation – with which so many employees, especially those working remotely, are struggling.  

According to social capital theory, relationships matter[2]. Your strategic planning workshop or series of strategy meetings can play a crucial roll in building collective employee action and trust.

I’ve discovered three workshop ingredients are especially helpful in creating “strategy social capital” throughout the strategic planning process.

  • Shared learning, where participants are gaining insight about external trends and environmental forces, is essential. Opening panels and guest speakers focused on external trends provide a powerful way to kick off and energize a strategy workshop.

  • Skin-in-the-game support from participants, in the form of brief, pre-working team homework assignments. The team analysis helps engage workshop participants prior to the workshop while spreading the workload, create shared learning in the process. Meaningful assignments could include time-tested analysis including SWOT, PESTEL and scenario planning.

  • Ensuring that the strategy participants contribute to key strategies strategic goals, at a high level of conception during the workshop or series of meetings. If facilitated skillfully, this invites interdisciplinary insight from across the organization.

Using an adaptable workshop framework, you can customize strategy-focused discussions to meet the needs of almost any organization. Consider adapting this workshop outline as a time-saver, allowing you to adapt it to your needs while focusing on the quality of strategy discussions rather than on the meeting structure.

Your Written Strategic Plan

Your written strategic plan is your organization’s story of now and the near future. Your strategic plan should be an organization’s compelling, living and breathing shared story that can be embodied by its people.

This is not a shelf ornament—something that looks good but sits idle as a showpiece in a cabinet. The purpose of a written plan is to start the ball rolling, to get things moving not only toward a brilliant future for your organization, but to communicate strategic intent (stated goals) that will provide your organization with the opportunity to produce strategic impact (results).

All employees should receive a copy of the strategic plan – or have easy access to a digital copy of the plan, or at least the highlights of the plan.

In our world of digital information, it’s easy to bring your written strategic plan to life. For example, a boring written strategic plan could be transformed into an abbreviated, digitized, magazine-style visual story including infographics, videos, photography, and animation to enhance storytelling and simplify complicated information. North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences[3], showcases its vision, mission, core values, strategic goals, and shares major initiatives with both internal and external audiences.

Few global companies use corporate websites to promote a high-level view of key strategic initiatives, excerpts from the strategic plan, leader communication, white papers, podcasts, and videos. This is a missed opportunity. Your organization’s website is the most powerful global marketing and communication tool working on behalf of your organization 24 hours a day as a strategic information resource.

Your ongoing strategic plan tracking and communication system

After your written strategic plan is developed, a communication plan should be created to provide communication support for your organization’s strategic plan. As a separate support document to the written strategic plan, a strategic communication plan aligns an organization’s communication and marketing strategies and tactics to support the organization’s goals.

Be sure to include your chief communication officer and communication staff from the get-go as part of your strategic planning team. Effective communication supports employee understanding and engagement. Your communication staff will be a key partner for developing a communication plan to spotlight ongoing goal progress and to support candid company-wide conversations about enterprise-level goals.

This could include employee forums discussing the strategic plan, as well as a series of articles discussing the organization’s strategic goals. Specific departments could be featured to showcase how work groups are achieving goal progress—and to explore real challenges.

The principles of “Vital, Visual and Visible” communication provide a helpful mindset to help your organization bring to life the written strategic plan. These “3Vs” have potential to improve employee engagement in strategy execution.

Vital is the first communication principle, defined as essential and meaningful. When an organization’s strategic planning process is valued and indispensable to the organization’s future, strategy meetings are viewed as vital. Then, the resulting strategic plan is highly regarded as a life-giving roadmap to the future – a plan worthy of implementation  – not a shelf ornament. 

Creating a vital strategy process and strategic plan begins with an organization’s CEO and leadership team. The CEO is the chief strategy ambassador responsible for creating excitement about the process and gravitas for the resulting plan. The chief communication officer should be included from the start, charged with playing pivotal role in shaping strategic plan messaging and outreach to internal and external audiences. 

Visual is the second communication principle, defined as including illustrations and picture elements. Visuals can transform lengthy, boring written strategic plans into inspiring stories of an organization’s future with tools such as a digitized, magazine-style online document featuring infographics, diagrams, animated graphics, photography, and video.

Visible is the third communication principle, defined as being easily seen.  For the strategic plan to be understood, it must be visible – conspicuously communicated and embodied throughout the organization – not hidden. Effective tools for boosting strategic plan visibility include employee strategy updates hosted by the CEO and senior management team, held either in-person or virtually.

Prior to the production of your written strategic plan, you will want to help your organization select an effective system to track and communicate strategic ongoing goal progress. It’s important to keep in mind that your organization’s tracking report is an essential tool for documenting strategic impact.

You will want to ensure that your executive team is committed to instituting a meaningful goal measurement system (or dashboard) to track and cascade goals to all levels of the organization. You will also want to help your executive team understand that strategic planning is a vital, ongoing process requiring ongoing communication—not a one-and-done event. All employees must understand how their work aligns with and supports the organization’s success.

Thanks to these cloud-based online tracking tools, it’s easier than ever to track and measure your organization’s strategic plan goal progress. Small organizations with limited budgets may prefer to use a simple spreadsheet. When you effectively track goal progress, communicate, and celebrate when goals are achieved, you are demonstrating leadership’s commitment to implementing the written strategic plan.

Even simple tracking tools, such as the template shown below, are especially helpful for smaller organizations with limited budgets. These very basic tracking spreadsheets can be designed to report individual, department, and enterprise-level progress – and this is a significant form of communication showing goal progress. Goal-tracking combined with planned, deliberate internal communication is a useful recipe for helping employees understand how their daily work contributes to the strategic plan and company success.

Carol A. Poore, Ph.D., MBA, is president of Poore & Associates Strategic Planning, serves on faculty at Arizona State University’s School of Public Affairs, and is author of Strategic Impact: A Leader’s Three-Step Framework for the Customized Vital Strategic Plan (Fast Company Press) endorsed by the Association for Strategic Planning. She can be reached at Carol@CarolPoore.com.

Sample Strategic Planning Workshop Agenda (to be customized to fit the organization)

  1. Welcome and introductions (including an executive endorsement)
  2. External trends presentation (guest panel or keynote speaker)
  3. External analysis and participant team research findings—presentations by homework teams. 

For example, external and internal analysis could include these reports:

  • Focus group and listening session results, 
  • SWOT Analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats analysis as it relates to the competition),
  • PESTEL analysis (Political, Economic, Social, Technology, Environmental and Legal trend analysis), and
  • Competitive Intelligence to compare similar or competing organizations.

4.  Strategy development: pillar breakout groups, leading to prioritized strategic goals

5.  Optional discussion: hot topics

6.  Optional discussion: vision, mission, values, grand purpose (“Vision, Etc.”)

7.  Discuss ongoing goal-tracking and communication

8.  Wrap-up:  Discuss next steps and approval of the written strategic plan.  Thank participants and adjourn.

* (This agenda overview does not include breaks, lunch, evening reception, or other activities.)


[1] Kruse, Kevin (2012). What is Employee Engagement? Forbes, Jun 22, 2012.

[2] Field, J. (2003). Social capital. Routledge, New York.

[3] North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences Strategic Plan: https://naturalsciences.org/strategic-plan/.