Many think Strategic Planning is about the business, the market, the opportunities, the customers and the money to be made. What I have learned over the dozens of strategic plans I have facilitated is that the personal goals and objectives of the participants in the process are as much a factor as all that external stuff.
As I came to realize this connection, I altered the way I conducted my consulting practice and began to restructure my pre-planning interviews with key executives to question them about their own goals and aspirations. I tried to do this in a conversational way that was relaxed and unstructured so that I could gain insight into how they saw their future without being confronting or challenging in any way. I kept the results of these conversations confidential and never divulged what I had heard in the private sessions to the group during the planning sessions. However, what I learned shaped some of the questions I asked the group and alerted me to who might be holding back pertinent comments during significant parts of the discussions.
In addition, as a facilitator, I always watch the participants and try to discourage those who want to dominate the discussion and encourage those I see holding back and remaining quiet. The people being quiet often have reservations or insights that are important to consider but are hesitant to speak. By questioning them I can create an opening to expand the conversations in a direction we might not have otherwise pursued.
In a similar vein, we have conducted customer satisfaction surveys before a comprehensive client engagement to gain valuable input on how the customers feel about the client company, what they like most and what they would like to see improved. Like the executive’s personal goals, these insights are important in shaping company agenda and the overall thrust of a strategic plan.
Customer satisfaction surveys, if properly structured, reveal why customers select certain companies to do business with and how the company in question measures up against those criteria. Further, regular follow up surveys indicate what has changed and if the company initiatives are producing the desired results.
Given the current troubles, it is difficult to think of planning as “strategic” rather than “tactical.” And yet, we must continue to consider input from a number of sources if we are to recognize opportunities and take advantage of them as best we can under the circumstances. One area that will need more attention than in the past is how the rank and file employee think about the company and what is important to them. And, like customers, not all of their thoughts, ideas and concerns will be rational, and fact based. Regardless of the origins, their thoughts and feelings are important to consider. Further employee are not monolithic and vary by education, background, and who they listen to and watch on TV. Developing means to understand their concerns and communicate with them in a credible way will become more and more important as we work our way out of the current situation.
No Easy Answer
Unfortunately, there is no obvious prescription on how to proceed. Each company is different. Each group of employee is different. And most important, the opportunities and challenges will be different than they have been in the past and may evolve and change much more quickly than we are used to.
Charting a successful future is going to take creativity and leadership for sure, but it is also going to take listening to “stakeholders” that maybe have not been listened to before.