In Part I of this series on Strategic Planning for the Next Normal, we focused on what a V.U.C.A. world it was in 2020, and again in 2021. We suggested in Part I that it is time now (Spring, 2021) for you to stand up, dust off, and take inventory of just how your business (and your customers’ businesses) has changed. We showed you how to write a Change Mandate statement. If you have not done that already, go back to that article and then talk over your written Change Mandate as a leadership team in your company. In Part II, we showed you how to convert your written Change Mandate into your New Vision. In this third and final part of this series, let’s talk about communicating your change vision. This important step is the most overlooked step in strategic business planning.
The Enemy of All Business Strategy: An Ambiguous Plan
If you think your market competitors represent your biggest business challenges, you may be right. Or, maybe not. Maybe there are other strategic business challenges you face that are less tangible, but just as destructive. Perhaps your corporate culture is an issue? Maybe a regulatory situation that snuck up on you. Or, maybe you are undercapitalized. Each of these could be a factor, for sure. But, often, the most imposing barrier to a sound business strategy is ambiguity. This can happen when the strategic business planning process is mismanaged or rushed. It can also happen if top leaders are not adequately stimulated by their strategic planning advisor/facilitator to get outside the box. In my 30+ years across corporate America leading strategic planning retreats, I have read hundreds of background documents on my clients and their previous strategic business plans. Frequently, I found those previous plans to be neither strategic nor plans.
If you had that same opportunity to read some other company’s past strategic business plan, you would find yourself asking, “OK, I think I get it. But what is the strategy?” You would be shocked to learn that some leaders who are directly involved in setting corporate strategy, when asked off the cuff, cannot answer that question. This is where the ambiguity starts – top leaders often have so under thought their strategy, or over thought it, that they cannot clearly and concisely describe their actual strategy. Holding their strategic plan in hand, they will look at you, unable to explain how their business is going to be better positioned against their rivals as a direct result of implementing the plan in their own hands. So, as I say, this is where strategic ambiguity starts. Left unresolved, it can blossom into full-blown corporate confusion. Check out these statements of business strategy that are vague, unspecific, and downright unclear.
- “The actionable organizational intent of this internal/external improvement tactical action plan, with my current work/life balance bandwidth, will be unclear. Perhaps we should circle back to internal stakeholders to get a 30,000’ view, you know, for the iterative win/win value add. As a steward leader, I am grateful for your continuous collaborative improvement.”
- Yes, I heard those actual words. I think. But it was such complete drivel that I may have stopped listening.
- “Our core competency is to be on the bleeding edge of scalable, outside the box solutions that will leverage our robust impact to the next level. Stakeholder research tells us ‘it is what it is.’”
- “Well, I’m no cat herder. But, our competitive intelligence studies of the event horizon – so we can, you know, going forward, break through the clutter – include a downsizing elevator pitch sure to help with baking ideation into the process.”
- Wait, what?! Cats travel in herds?
- “Our strategy is to achieve $100,000,000 in sales by 2016.”
- I like this one because it is short and sweet. And, not a strategy. That’s an objective. So, how you going to hit that $100 million?
I could go on. The business landscape is positively littered with attempts to sound smart or invoke the right buzzwords. As you consider your strategic business plans for 2021 and beyond, we encourage you to write your strategy to the eight-grade level. The other option of a convoluted, unspecific, but academically-worded treatise may make a strategy nerd feel complete. But it will not drive action in your company. Think short. Clear. Simple. Bold. Just say what you mean.
- “Our strategy is to acquire other enterprises that serve our clients, or downstream enterprises in our own supply chain, so we are virtually impossible to unseat as their bankers.”
- “Our strategy is to target the very small market of customers who are willing to pay more for sign and screen print supplies – then offer them an experience that inspires their confidence and which our competitors cannot match. We are not as interested in top-line revenue growth, as we are serving a small collection of clients who passionately recommend us to their peers.”
- “Our strategy is to be first to market in 2021 with a full tech-forward work-from-home strategy post Covid-19 that enables us to lure top talent away from our slow-to-react competitors.”
These might be a bit clearer, right? In each of these fictional examples above, it is as if an entire 50-page strategic business plan has been boiled down to 30-40 words. Now that is clear! So, how do you get your entire company to say your strategy, and understand it, with such simplicity?
Put it Out There
You do it. That’s how. You put it out there, with confidence. You communicate the heck out of your strategy and strategic plan. In the last three years, here are actual examples from companies I have worked with who went to extraordinary efforts to communicate their strategic plan internally and externally. Leaders in these companies are strong communicators who (like us at Kraus-Anderson Risk Innovation) know about the corrosive effects of strategic ambiguity.
- Strategic plan onboarding kits to get employees acclimated to the new direction
- New employee orientation materials featuring the strategic plan
- Modest production videos about the strategic plan
- Strategic business plan update section of corporate annual reports
- Corporate communications campaigns addressing everything from employees’ screen savers related to the strategic plan all the way to overhauling the variable pay program to support the strategic plan
- Website versions of their strategic plan
- A version in Adobe Spark, for more visual interest
- Internal corporate intranet versions of the plan with Microsoft SharePoint utilization
- Power Point versions of the strategic plan for use in department, or business unit meetings
- Webinars about their strategic plan
- All-company meeting productions
- A professional theatrical production of the strategic plan at an all-employee gathering.
- New marketing communication models and materials, new website, new value proposition materials, new proposals, new jobsite signage, and more
In this three-part series, we hope we have inspired you to take action on your strategic planning for the next normal. We organized this series into Parts I, II, and III to give you time each month to absorb, reflect, and read more. I would like to thank my colleague, Seth Hausman, for his amazing insights as we brought this thought leadership to you. Strategic business planning in the next normal requires a different kind of thinking than the thinking that brought your organization up to 2019. By 2021 (even if your company was positively affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, social unrest, and political uncertainty) there are now brand-new opportunities and risks that await your company. But, like many businesses, yours may have been hit hard by 2020 and 2021. If that is the case, perhaps getting unstuck is as basic as doing some planning. Your business partners at Kraus-Anderson Risk Innovation are ready to help to maximize your growth and minimize corporate risk through sound strategic consulting.
Want to talk? Reach out to Tom Emison, our Senior Director of Strategic Consulting Temison@kainsurance.com. Or, call him at 612.979.5740. Tom can also be found on LinkedIn and Facebook.