Strategic planning is complex - it needs a process to do it well...

Complex strategic planning for teas requires careful coaching and training
Posted on: Monday 21, March 2016
Category: Leadership Development

[ 2 3/4 minutes reading time]

An essential leadership activity is spending time as a team working through your strategic plans and envisioning your future. This blog article describes a process to do this well. How you then share the results with your staff is equally important, so your people can buy-into your vision and latest thinking as well.

Leadership teams that fail to invest in this type of activity, or don’t do this well, ultimately set-up mediocracy and even failure.


All senior leadership teams need to spend time on strategic planning. It is an essential leadership activity - so it's worth doing well. As such you need to spend time out and get away from the day-to day business for a day or two.  You also a need a good process to help you to approach it with the right frame of mind that allows you to consider multiple perspectives and impacts on your business.  Here are some examples of typical topics many leadership teams need to work on: 

  • Envision your latest future.
  • Reach for your big goals and ambitious targets.
  • Remodelling parts of your business.
  • Plan to sell your company in the near future.
  • Consider what your buyers changing needs will be.
  • Understand the changing external landscape.
  • How best to compete against other organisations.
  • Exploiting benefits of technology, social media and changing business practices.
  • Accommodate critical changes in your own company circumstances. 
  • Appreciate how any changes will affect your company culture and its people. 

Each strategic planning scenario will be different for each leadership team and business.

What works best...

To get the most from your strategic planning away-day or off-site, here are some pointers for you that from my own experience are vital for a successful outcome...

Firstly it is essential that you are able to access your creative thinking abilities. However working with many leadership teams I know that many senior people do not find this easy at all. Thinking creatively means you have to give yourself permission to use the other half of your brain that perhaps you feel you aren't very adept at using - hence many leaders are afraid of such so called 'woolly' or 'fluffy' thinking.  As you will see nothing can be further from the truth.

However when free-flowing creative thinking is deliberately encouraged into your strategic planning process it will definitely pay-off and return you with exponential dividends. By allowing time and space for creative thinking, I guarantee that you will dramatically exceed your own expectations and you will all learn that you can push through your original fears and doubts about being able to think creatively. In reality a good process will balance both structured and creative elements.  I will return to this theme again later.

So my advice is to find a skilled and experienced facilitator who is both able to deal with creative and structured processes to help guide you. I can't over-emphasise this point enough.  Believe me, you will certainly benefit from the right kind of experienced guidance. 

Secondly your process should lead you to identify primary activities and actions required to operationalise your strategy.  These can then form into change-workstreams with some notion of time-scales, key resources and budget pots needed to execute your strategy at a later point.

In addition it is useful to spend time to consider and plan what needs to be communicated to your people, your investors and your buyers and when.

Lastly, you will need commit to a 'phase II' - to create a more detailed plan that will begin to operationalise your agreed actions or change-workstreams. This may include identifying appointments to manage the process, important resources and budgets required etc. This is in my experience where a lot of strategic planning processes fail. Just doing a strategic planning exercise in itself will not produce your end results. So setting aside additional time for adaquate high level leadership action planning and deployment of resources etc is fundemental. Don't try to 'muddle through' - do it properly!

Planning around these multiple contexts is complex and requires your full attention - that's part of your responsibilities as leaders.  So as I have already mentioned - get your process facilitated.  That means you as a team can be skillfully guided to work through your specific circumstances and situations and tackle your particular problems and issues.  

Coming back to creative thinking again...

Everyone including you can access your creative part of your brain

When this happens in your whole team then the real 'magic starts to happen.'

As I've alluded to already, to do this requires you to engage different parts of your brain that are more adept at thinking of new and innovative outcomes. Such thinking may make you as a team feel slightly uneasy because you are not so familiar with this ‘creative-mode’ of problem solving - and therefore you might fear (wrongly) not being good at it. Normally most leaders are used to thinking around objective, logical day-to-day business matters. However believe me when I say that you can be creative with your thoughts and this will also suprise and delight you too.

When you stretch yourselves to open up to your creative thinking circuits in a safe and productive way will mean you begin to collaborate as a team. This feeling is highly engaging and stimulating. It will make you all feel invigorated and this collective state of mind is very beneficial at leadership levels.

Seven keys to a great strategic planning process... 

I have spent a considerable amount of time helping leaders to structure their strategic planning approach, so here is a summary of what I believe makes an effective process:

  1. It must be practical, creative and collaborative (and stretching too). This is essential.
  2. It should be enlightening, insightful and invigorating.
  3. It should engage you all as a leadership team and motivate you all.
  4. That you gain further clarity from what initially seemed complex and amibigious.   
  5. You are clear on your next steps.
  6. That you end-up with tangible take-aways that you can continue to work on.  
  7. An appreciation (at least at a high level) of what's involved, the impacts and changes required to your business and your people moving forward.

My own approach is called 'The Big Think' - it's a practical process...

Here's my own process that you might find useful (this is not intended as 'plug' but more as a guide line for what I believe good might look like).

I have adapted it from my extensive past research and practical use of 'soft systems' philosophy.  Soft systems were developed way-back in the 1970's as method to understanding ambiguity and complexity. From this past research I have developed a unique practical process to stimulate leadership teams to generate new ideas, choices, options, potentials and possibilities.  Through the process these start to transform into pragmatic actions, manageable chunks and active work-streams.  I call my approach: "The Big Think!"

I have tried and tested my 'Big Think' approach with many leadership and exec. teams of all shapes and sizes in many different sectors in the UK, in Europe and in the USA too.  So I know that for my clients it works.

Strategic planning should not be a chore, but something really exciting. Leaders I have worked with love my process.  They enjoy engaging with it and appreciate that it is practical and easy to apply.  Other consultants or facilitators will use different processes, however whatever the process, the key to successful strategic planning is that it should cover the 7 pointers given above.



I hope this article has inspired you in someway. I would be delighted to facilitate you and your leadership team with your strategic planning workshops and any leadership team building development work that will help you to run a great high performing business. Thank you.

Recent News Event link - The 'Big Think!' - Envisioning your future

See also my blog article on "Why day dreaming is an essential skill for leaders."

Heres a video of a recent strategy planning day with a group of managers from a leading restaurant chain held outside Paris

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