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From the Sponsor’s Desk – Strategic Planning Is Just another Project

Strategic planning. It’s that corporate activity that happens every four or five years, takes six months to complete and requires an annual renewal cycle to update the long-term projections.

Or, it may happen every six months at a company that’s in a fast changing market. Or, it’s a continuous process if you listen to some management gurus. We know it consumes considerable senior executive cycles. It can also require an abundance of support staff time to provide the data, test out the scenarios and do the forecasts. It’s a mystery to many.

Here’s one instance of a strategic planning effort that was mandated by the company’s parent and carried out over ten weeks under the CEO’s direction. With the aid of an experienced consultant and the participation and, ultimately, endorsement of the company’s senior executives, the resulting plan laid out fundamental changes in the company’s markets, relationships, organization, and culture.

Thanks to J.G. for his contributions to this post.

The Situation

This niche financial services organization had been taken over by a larger international firm. One of the demands from the parent company was a refreshed strategic plan that would foster increased growth in the company’s domestic markets and through the parent’s international exposure.

The company had produced strategic plans in the past, but they hadn’t really challenged their approach to the market or assumptions on their operating results. In fact, past plans had typically reaffirmed business as usual. The company’s CEO sought an outsider to lead the company’s executives through the strategic planning process in the hopes that the newcomer could shake things up a bit and address the parent company’s demands.

The Goal

The CEO’s goal was to contract with a seasoned consultant to work with senior management and facilitate the development of a corporate strategic plan that supported increased growth in domestic and international markets. The target date for completion was six weeks from the start of the consultant’s engagement.

The Project

The CEO, through a number of his contacts, found a consultant who looked like a great fit. The consultant was a former CEO and had been advising corporate boards and senior executives for a number of years with a specialization in strategic planning practices.

The consultant reviewed his ten step approach with the CEO. Given the immediate challenge, they agreed to complete the first seven steps within the six-week timeframe. The final three steps would focus on the development and implementation of the delivered plan and would be carried out after the strategic plan was finalized and consequently out of scope for the consultant.


Given the CEO’s agreement to his method, the consultant proceeded to draft a contract for the CEO’s approval. The contract included the following information:

  • Engagement description
  • Assignment goals and metrics to assess achievement
  • Costs and benefits
  • Approach and scope
  • Stakeholders, roles and degree of commitment
  • Assumptions and risks
  • Change and issue management protocols
  • Completion criteria

The consultant’s draft contract was essentially a project charter. He produced a document that specified what was expected, how much it was going to cost, and the value it would deliver, how they were going to achieve the desired result, who needed to be involved, in what roles, committing how much time and effort and how all parties would confirm engagement completion. One essential principle was at the core of the contract: the strategic plan belonged to the executives. The consultant’s role was to guide them along the strategic planning path.

Related Article: 9 Steps to Project Success

With the CEO’s approval of the consultant’s contract, they proceeded to map out the timing for the introductory meeting, one on one meetings with each executive, follow-on group sessions and the final strategic plan review exercise. It became apparent that the six-week completion target was a significant challenge for the CEO, let alone the other executives. The CEO asked his executive assistant to contact the other stakeholders and book the planned meetings into their calendars. Of course, she ran into all kinds of schedule conflicts.

The consultant suggested scheduling the introductory meeting first and using that as a forum for the CEO to gain commitment and to persuade the other executives to structure their calendars appropriately. And so it went. The introductory meeting happened. The CEO reaffirmed his commitment to the planning process and asked the eight other executives in the room to fully commit to the effort. The consultant outlined the process they would follow and the suggested plan to achieve the CEO’s target. He asked them to think strategically, to be prepared to revisit, to iterate and test various scenarios. He also indicated that every possible course of action would be tested against four factors:

  1. Alignment with the company’s mission, vision, and culture and, of course, revisions if necessary.
  2. Contribution to the company’s present and future financial health.
  3. Value to present and future customers.
  4. Impact on the company’s current and future employees and systems – business and technology

The reaction from the executives was polite but resistant. The consultant described the timbre of the meeting as “throwing teacups at each other”. Ultimately, everyone acknowledged the need for the process and committed to participate fully. However, there was no question they knew change was in store, for the company and for them. That awareness came with resistance in all its guises, both overt and covert. The consultant proceeded accordingly.

The meetings were planned over ten weeks, the only way to get everyone actively participating. There were brilliant insights, retrenchment, and avoidance, but the thinking and direction started to coalesce. When the consultant brought the executives together for the final review meeting, there was electricity in the air. They were enlightened, committed and ready to get on with the work ahead.

The Results

The strategic plan was developed and documented in ten weeks, not the six weeks planned. Of course, the cost of the consultant’s time was also 40% over target. However, the CEO was delighted with the results, and the parent company blessed the plan with only minor changes to the international component. All senior executives were signatories to the document and committed to sharing with their staff over the following months. They were believers. As well, as the contract wound down, steps were already being taken to launch Step 8 in the consultant’s methodology – Develop a business portfolio, program and project plan.

The plan included seven significant changes for the company going forward:

  1. Think strategically: about all elements of the business, its customers, staff, partnerships and processes on an ongoing basis, not once in a while.
  2. Strategic goals: established to realize the company’s mission and vision and structured to complement overall performance
  3. Key success factors: to target, monitor and revise as needed on an ongoing basis
  4. Customer orientation: to foster an outside-in culture and enhance understanding of customer needs, challenges, and opportunities
  5. Structure by strategic business units: to effectively serve their unique, diverse and growing markets
  6. Cost focus: to better understand and manage costs and expenditures in the service of corporate priorities
  7. Put the right people in the right seats: to leverage available talent and maximize their contribution, in the short and long term.

There you have it! Strategic planning is just another project.

How a Great Leader Delivered

Often, trying to facilitate a strategic planning process is like herding cats – it disrupts the status quo, not everyone sees the need, and everyone has their own agenda. The consultant, in this case, had a number of assets that helped him succeed on behalf of his client.

  • He had experience. He had been a CEO. He had conducted strategic planning efforts with other organizations. He knew what to expect, how to relate, how to defuse resistance and capitalize on enthusiasm.
  • He had a method. His ten step process framed the work to be done and help establish the path going forward for all to see. He had used the process before to deliver successfully and knew how to adapt it to each unique circumstance.
  • He had a great sponsor. The CEO had the command from the parent company to satisfy. That was a recognized burning platform that the CEO and consultant used to motivate action in the other executives. The CEO owned the problem and fully supported his agent, the consultant, in the development of the strategic plan.
  • He managed expectations. The executives understood what was ahead of them from the outset. They knew the process they would go through, the tests that would be applied to each and every idea. They knew that they would have to revisit, iterate and rethink previous positions. They knew they would have to agree and act on the results.
  • He identified the owners at the outset. He made it clear from the beginning that the executives owned the results. That fact cemented their commitment to the endeavor and allowed him to do his job as facilitator. They made the decisions on the who, when, what, where and why questions. He made the calls on how. They were the sponsors and targets. He was the change agent.

These assets are exactly the kind of attributes and tools an experienced project manager uses to manage a project. With the exception of the experience factor, they can be applied by even the most junior manager. Appointment of a suitable mentor or supporting senior PM can be used to plug an experience gap. As I said, strategic planning is just another project.
So, if you find yourself leading a strategic planning initiative, or any kind of planning effort, where the deliverable is an action plan, put these points on your checklist of things to do in future endeavors so you too can be a Great Leader. And remember, use Project Pre-Check’s three building blocks covering the key stakeholder group, the decision management process and Decision Framework best practices right up front, so you don’t overlook these key success factors.

Finally, thanks to all you storytellers out there who share your experiences. Everyone benefits. First-time contributors get a copy of one of my books. Readers get insights they can apply to their own unique circumstances. So, if you have a project experience, good, bad and everything in between, send me the details, and we’ll chat. I’ll write it up and, when you’re happy with the results, Project Times will post it so others can learn from your experiences. Thanks

Drew Davison

Drew Davison is the owner and principal consultant at Davison Consulting and a former system development executive. He is the developer of Project Pre-Check, an innovative framework for launching projects and guiding successful project delivery, the author of Project Pre-Check - The Stakeholder Practice for Successful Business and Technology Change and Project Pre-Check FastPath - The Project Manager’s Guide to Stakeholder Management. He works with organizations that are undergoing major business and technology change to implement the empowered stakeholder groups critical to project success. Drew can be reached at [email protected].

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