Charting a course

Experts agree planning needn’t be painful.

By MIKE LEWIS
mlewis@crossroadsbizjournal.com

Crossroads Business Journal recently interviewed four people with experience in planning. The aim was to glean advice, tips and ideas.

Strategic plans are necessary, but they don’t have to be long, complicated or painful to produce, according to some experts in the field.

“I look at it as a very energizing, challenging and fun process,” said Mary Ellen Waltemire of One Step Closer Coaching, a consulting company in Hagerstown, Md.

Crossroads Business Journal recently interviewed four people with experience in planning. The aim was to glean advice, tips and ideas.

For example, according to some experts, you might consider tossing those three-ring binders and cases of sticky notes in favor of a well-crafted, one-page plan.

That’s the approach outlined in a Forbes column by Jenn Lofgren, founder of Incito Executive and Leadership Development, which is based in Canada.

“If you try to create an enormous three-ring binder, you’re going to create one. … The point of a strategic plan is not to create work plans,” Lofgren said in a recent interview with Crossroads Business Journal.

If the group’s mission and values statement is sound, and if the strategic plan is done well, top management can trust the experts within the organization to get the work done.

You also might reconsider who you involve in the process. Some advocated getting input from executives, board members, managers, front-line employees and customers. Some suggested that you include former customers and maybe even a respected competitor or two.

No matter who is in the room, leaders have to create an atmosphere of trust so people can speak frankly.

“Brutally honest,” is the way Paul Frey, president and CEO of the Washington County Chamber of Commerce, phrased it.

Some other highlights:

‘A great test’

Jenn Lofgren

Lofgren, of Incito, said businesses typically get started by asking how to solve a specific problem — building a better mousetrap, if you will. So she advocates starting a strategic plan by asking those questions again.

What problem are you solving for customers now? Will your customers have those same problems in the near future? If not, how will those problems change? How can you adapt to address those changes? What problems can you help solve for other people who will become your new customers? Will you have to give up some customers to solve more problems for others?

The bottom line, she said, is filling the gap between what you’re doing now and what you need to be doing.

“The gap becomes your objectives,” she said.

Given the rate of change in business and technology, she encouraged companies to be honest and bold.

“A great test is, are you willing to p— off some people?” she said.

SWOT or SOAR?

Mary Ellen Waltemire

Thinking in terms of SWOT — strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats — is still a reliable tool for planning.

Waltemire, of One Step Closer, suggests supplementing SWOT with SOAR — strengths, opportunities, aspirations and results. That doesn’t mean you get to ignore weaknesses and threats. But it encourages people to dream big and spell out metrics to measure progress.

“It puts a more active, forward-thinking feel to the process,” she said.

‘Be very clear’

The quartet agreed that clear mission and value statements have to be in place for planning to be meaningful.

Paul Frey

“It really gets down to basics. … A job description is what you do. The mission is who you are,” said Frey, of the chamber.

Frey used to work for the Plamondon Cos., based in Frederick, Md. He carries a business-card-sized document from that organization. One side lists “The values you respect,” such as “Our attention to you is relentless, gracious and urgent.” The other side lists the company’s ground rules for communication, such as “Speak your bottom-line truth” and “Leave with goodwill.”

“Be very clear of what your mission is and where you’re headed,” Frey said.

If it’s well done, a mission and values statement can be the basis of everything from planning documents to personnel decisions to customer relations.

The chamber’s “2016-2020 Strategic Framework” fits on two sides of an 8 1/2-by-11-inch sheet of paper, Frey said.

‘A function of the culture’

Michael Boyd

“There’s no one way to be successful at strategic planning,” said Michael D. Boyd, program manager for workforce development and certification and licensure at Hagerstown Community College.

Like Frey, Boyd is a Plamondon alumnus. He said the nitty-gritty specifics of how to set up planning sessions — off-site or in-house, full-day or half-day, top-down or bottom-up — will vary from one organization to the next, and probably should.

“It’s a function of the culture of the organization,” he said.

In thinking about strategic planning, Boyd said five key elements should be addressed: your mission statement, your own resources, the competitive environment, advances in technology that will change business for you and your customers, and the anticipated changes in governmental regulations that will affect you and your customers.

‘Relentless pursuit of feedback’

The proof of the plan’s worth is in the execution.

“If you’re not willing to follow through on the plan, don’t even do it. … You’re better off not doing it,” Frey said.

Leaders lose credibility if they devote time and resources to a plan that gathers dust on a shelf, the quartet said. To keep organizations on track, internal “plan champions” can be appointed to watch progress. If the organization used an outside consultant to help draw up the plan, that consultant might be called upon to make periodic reviews.

He said leaders and co-workers should reinforce the mission, values and plan on a daily basis.

“I don’t know any other way to do it,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean rigidly following an outline written on paper. Lofgren, of Incito, said to date the plan. And don’t get discouraged if it goes through several iterations. The “relentless pursuit of feedback” provides the agility companies need to adapt to customers’ needs and market conditions.

All four agreed that organizations need flexibility on the route to the plan’s destination.

Frey quoted the maxim, “No battle plan survives the war.”