Sue King
Independent Consultant

This is the first of several articles describing the Strategic Planning Process—a simple, effective method to keep the future in the forefront. This article describes the Strategic Framework, the basic backbone of the process.

Can you articulate the long-term goals of your organization? How often have you lived the joke “long term for our company is 6 months out”? In these times of increasing pressures to be more productive and hit a “home run” for every deliverable, it is vital we have clear long-term goals and ensure that our work is appropriate and makes a significant contribution to the long-term success of our enterprise.

The Strategic Planning Process (SPP) is a method for evaluating our work initiatives—whether product or process, both tactical and strategic—and regularly optimizing them with an eye to the future. Whether your organization is large or small, this process is fast-paced, easy to implement, and very adaptive to change, thus making it easy to employ continuously over time. SPP, used with effective brainstorming and exploration techniques, can assist in identifying innovations that enhance our work and contribute to improved job satisfaction.

An effective SPP begins with the establishment of a clear strategic framework for the organization. This may be developed “from scratch” or adapted from that of the broader organization as long as it is meaningful and actionable for the purposes of your own organization. Whether your team is large or small, it should have a viable strategic framework that is clearly understood by all members of the team. The team leaders—both formal and informal, both management and non-management—are the people who should create and maintain this framework.

The strategic framework consists of the following elements: (1) a VISION, which may or may not be the vision of the broader organization; (2) a MISSION; (3) defined STRATEGIC TIMEFRAMES, which includes both a “long term” and a “short term” strategic time period; (4) 5–7 key STRATEGIC OBJECTIVES; and, optionally, (5) 3–5 KEY CHARACTERISTICS of the organization.

The strategic framework begins with the VISION statement. If the larger organization has an explicit vision statement or corporate goals, the team may be able to easily adapt them to the needs of the immediate organization. As you build the vision, be sure to understand the bigger picture outside of your enterprise, such as possible or likely future competitive directions, global trends, and potential or anticipated technology directions. The vision is 1–2 very descriptive sentences that envision the long-term opportunity. JFK’s vision of the US space program is an excellent example: “…We go into space because whatever mankind must undertake, free men must fully share… this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.” These simple words captured the essence of an enormous program, including the competitive context of the “race for space”.

The MISSION statement is the explicit description of the operating responsibilities of the organization. In the US space program, there were specific missions for the various program stages—(1) launch, (2) recovery, (3) lunar landing and exploration, (4) monitoring systems and redundancy, and so on.

The STRATEGIC TIMEFRAME is specified so that everyone has a common understanding of the time period the strategic objectives span. Initially, JFK specified the long term of the US space program for “man on the moon” as “before the decade is out”—approximately 9 years. The long term should cover a reasonable period of time—minimum 3–5 years. Often we find that US business objectives are so tactical, it is difficult to stretch to the strategic period. IBM’s early THINKPAD projects had development horizons of 9–18 months while their related technology roadmap looked out 5–7 years. My experience suggests that product strategy periods generally span 2–3 years; technology strategy periods, however, especially where the technology investment is expensive, may span 5–10 years. Short term is the timeframe you use to gauge progress toward the long term. The US space program short term was 2–3 years. In the electronics business today the short term is typically 6–12 months.

A STRATEGIC OBJECTIVE is a goal to reach. Be as crisp as possible with the description of the strategic objective; be sure to capture the essential ingredients for success as viewed by the team (consensus). A strategic objective should describe: (1) what is to be accomplished that has not been done yet, (2) to what degree, (3) by when. A goal should stretch reasonably into the future. Various strategic objectives of the early US space program stages were: (1) one-man mission outside the earth’s atmosphere; (2) a multi-person team orbiting the earth; (3) a multi-person team orbiting the moon; (4) a man on the moon; (5) all trips requiring safe return to earth. Try to keep the number of strategic objectives to no more than 7. Be careful to distinguish between a work initiative (the steps or means of getting to a goal) and a strategic objective. For example, a strategic objective might be to show significant, measurable user acceptance improvement across the team’s work products year upon year for the next 3 years at some agreed to rate which represents a “stretch,” while a strategic initiative might be to benchmark an industry “best of breed” work product.

Occasionally you may find that there is a need to specify one or more (ideally less than 3, no more than 5) key characteristics of the organization. A KEY CHARACTERISTIC is an attribute of the organization that is essential to its character. That is, the organization would change substantially if the attribute were removed from the organizational makeup. For example, an information- or training-development team should be “customer needs focused/driven” (as distinguished from documenting the product specs or being “product driven”). Often you may have a strategic objective that represents a desirable “key characteristic” that does not yet persist within the organization but, if it did, would dramatically change the organization. Once this strategic objective is accomplished, it becomes a key characteristic for the future.

Once the framework is agreed upon and documented, it should be communicated to all of the members of the team. (By the way, the framework is also an excellent tool for communicating your organization’s story to company executives and getting upper management buy-in for key strategic investments.)

Given the framework, it is a relatively simple matter to assess the work activities of the organization against it and determine what, if any, changes need to be made to the current work portfolio. Furthermore, the process allows the organization to easily assess new directions or work at any time in the future as well as assess work progress, thus enabling timely and more effective mid-course corrections. The next article in this series will describe the assessment process.

(For information on additional variations or facilitation on this process or availability of Joel Barker’s Strategy Matrix®, a comprehensive automated spreadsheet for this process, contact the author.)