The Changing Face of Strategic Planning

The purpose of a strategic plan is to guide an organization intelligently into the future — but what happened to the last strategic plan you put together? It likely sits in a binder collecting dust on your office shelf, without ever fulfilling its intended purpose.

With so much time, money and resources needed to create them, why it is that so many strategic plans never truly see the light of day? It’s because they’re unrealistic and irrelevant. However, that doesn’t mean the strategic planning process isn’t worth it. It’s just outdated.

The key is to involve and engage those who will be implementing the plan from the beginning. When strategic planners and project managers work together, strategic plans can become one of an organization’s most useful tools for weathering tough economic times and staying ahead in today’s fast-paced business environment.

How Strategic Plans Miss the Mark

There is a disconnect between the development and the completion of a strategic plan that often results in huge cost overruns, delays in implementation, chaos in the workplace, and low worker morale. This disconnect happens when strategic planners fail to develop plans with the help of professional project managers — those who can better ensure that it is easily transformed into a working, successful operational plan.

What makes the project manager’s participation so important from the beginning? Strategic planners have figured out how to take into account all views of the various stakeholders, how to include financial projections for each activity, how to set proper goals and objectives and even set timelines, milestones and target dates. However, the reason many strategic plans are not “functional” is that they are created by a person or team who is not a knowledgeable, certified or experienced project manager. The failure to place on the strategic planning team a project manager who understands the reality of managing complex projects is the single largest failure of the strategic planning industry.

The Beauty of ‘Strategic Management’

Many CEOs resist bringing project managers in from the beginning because they continue to think of the strategic planning stage as being “earlier” than the project management stage. Taking this step may appear to be a waste of resources, but it’s really quite the opposite.

To truly picture the difference between strategic planners and project managers, think of it this way: Strategic planners are broad thinkers who soar at 30,000 feet. Project management professionals often work in the trenches, managing details and day-to-day nuances. They deal with the personnel, scheduling and IT issues that can push an unrealistic plan horribly off track, little by little. By putting strategic planners and project managers together to work on the strategic planning processes, they begin to fly at the same altitude. They can see what the other sees and can plan accordingly.

We know that the best CEOs fly at both 30,000 feet and near the ground simultaneously. They create vision and strategy, and they require successful implementation. When they do their job best, they are both a strategic planner and a project manager. This is the beauty of what those in the industry call “strategic management.” The key is to consider every point of view, from the people leading the charge to the people doing the heavy lifting — and giving each role a voice in the process. Strategic management allows for a cross-functional and all-inclusive component that traditional strategic planning processes lack. While strategic planning is somewhat one-sided, strategic management brings together strategic planners and project managers with great success, whether they are at GE, DARPA or Harvard University.

Thinking Outside the Binder

Imagine you’ve done everything right, yet you’re left with a 200-page binder housing your company’s new strategic plan. Now what? How are you going to use it, and how are you going to reference the information when you need it? When Lyndon B. Johnson was president, he demanded that anything written for his eyes be no longer than one page. While no valuable strategic plan can — or should — be that brief, there are ways to make it much easier to follow.

Goals, objectives, implementation guidelines, budgets, and personnel assignments — these are all crucial parts of a strategic plan. But lumping them together into a big, fat binder is not the best way to ensure a plan is followed. Take advantage of new presentation formats to make your plans readable, understandable, credible and actionable. That could mean PowerPoint slides, Visio drawings, spreadsheets or other new graphical/text combinations that integrate project management templates with strategic planning templates. The goal must be to make strategic plans implementable, not just readable. Project management professionals can go a long way to making this a reality by communicating the plan the way the organization’s employees communicate, not the way executives and consultants want them to communicate.

Getting It Right

It may take a real visionary to “sell” the idea of marrying strategic planning and project management from the beginning. However, once everyone agrees it’s worth doing, it can be a satisfying experience.

Imagine the value of learning whether or not a strategic plan is realistic from the beginning, from the people who will be in the trenches carrying it out. It’s important no matter how small or large a project is — whether it’s a blood drive or an enterprise-wide IT integration. As more and more project managers successfully become involved earlier and earlier in the strategic planning process, strategic plans will become a more relevant and realistic part of business.

Bruce A. McGraw is the CEO of Cognitive Technologies, a professional services firm delivering project and program management services, products and PMO tool implementation to commercial and government clients.

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