4 Ways to Keep Strategic Planning Focused

By: Harvey Bergholz

Imagine you’ve been tagged with facilitating a business strategy workgroup. Having participated in similar planning exercises before, you know the traps that can keep the group from achieving high-value outcomes.

Often, people get lost in the weeds of operations and tactics, eating up far too much valuable meeting time while the real strategic issues and decisions go looking for a home. Here are some ways to help you avoid this trap and stay focused on what matters most.

Start with focus

As a starting point, get the group to decide on a working definition of what is and what is not “strategic,” then post it in the room, so they’re visible to all and use it as a touchstone. Here are the four areas I rely on to stay focused and make the right decisions:

  1. Potential impact on direction
  2. Level of risk
  3. Potential impact on results
  4. Degree of futurity

Direction, risk, impact, and futurity

A few words about each will make it clear how these apply.

  • If an issue or a decision is genuinely strategic for an organization, then it has the potential to change or reconfirm the direction of the organization. For example, the long-term vision of what the organization does, where it does it, who it serves, and how it functions, maybe even its central mission, or purpose.
  • Does the issue or the decision present a level of downside risk that is significant? Risk of financial losses, reputational risk, or loss of market share or market positioning?
  • What is the potential positive impact of this decision on our most essential results and measures, particularly on the upside? Is the potential impact enough to really “move the needle” regarding financial results or market share?
  • Finally, what is the degree of futurity – a fancy word for how stuck we may be once we go ahead with this? If we can retract the decision efficiently, with minimal adverse impact, there’s a low degree of futurity. If, on the other hand, to pursue it at all we must go deep and be committed for a long while with significant resources, then there’s a high degree of futurity.

Practical use of the four criteria

Direction, risk, impact, and futurity. Let’s consider a few examples.

“We need to establish a long-term position in South America, where we have no presence now for any of our toy lines. An acquisition is possible, or we could build a plant, invest in on-the-ground talent, and greenfield it.”

  • Direction: It does reconfirm toys as our direction, but expanding to another continent might well be considered a shift in direction
  • Risk: The two choices, and perhaps others, will present considerable financial risk, as well as reputational risk if the effort fails
  • Impact: If successful, this could open a major new revenue and profit stream for years to come
  • Futurity: The organization will likely not be able to disengage from the effort easily or quickly once undertaken

Does an issue or decision need to meet all four criteria to be “strategic”? No – even one in a serious way will qualify for group discussion.

Here’s another example of an HR Department looking into the future:

“The lead division plans on tripling in size and geographic reach within three years. That calls for a lot of recruiting, assessments, hiring, onboarding, and training. We should consider outsourcing some of those functions rather than build all that capability internally.”

What do you think: strategic or operational? From the corporate or division level, one would likely describe this issue as “operational,” but for the HR Department, these are strategic issues to resolve: direction, risk, impact, and futurity. “Strategic” depends on the context, or frame of reference, and the nature of the organization itself. What may be operational for you could be strategic for me.

Maximize your meeting efficiency

To make the most of your strategy sessions, use a pre-meeting package. I rarely facilitate a strategy session without providing one to participants. To do this, in advance of the meeting, ask the workgroup members for all the issues or problems they consider vital to resolve, then prioritize them based on the four criteria I’ve described.

Next, re-circulate that content for confirmation beforehand, with instructions to come prepared with data, background, and their thoughts about those issues. Now you’re ready to make the most of the group time as you explore the advantages and disadvantages, risks, rewards, and business cases behind each strategic question the group must address. When you use this approach, you’ll elevate the workgroup’s focus, become more productive, and stay out of the weeds.

Learn more about this topic in Business Acumen and Strategy.

About the Instructor: Harvey Bergholz

Harvey Bergholz

Harvey has experience as president of Jeslen Corp., a management consulting firm. Jeslen Corp. consults across industries and organization sizes, focusing on strategic planning, organization development, facilitation, and performance management. Working mostly with senior management and boards, Harvey and his team design and deliver tailored approaches to problem-solving and decision-making situations in organizations large and small, public and private.