The Strategic Planning Process

What are the steps involved in developing a comprehensive strategic planning process? And once developed, how do we ensure that our plan will be put into use and not gather dust on the proverbial shelf?

Before undertaking a strategy planning process, ownership must first understand that unless it is committed to involving the entire employee staff (both management and line), the plan won’t work. For employees to identify with the goals of ownership, their participation must be part of developing strategy. Furthermore, an owner’s commitment to growth and change breathes life into strategic planning. Without it, planning is empty.

With this in mind, strategic planning is the process of answering at least four questions:


  1. How do our customers see us, our products and our service? Too often we assume that we know what customers want without asking them. Or, we depend on our salespeople to tell us. Some owners use surveys to try to understand what their customers are thinking. But the return rates on those surveys tend to be skimpy, and those customers who do return the cards rarely reflect the entire range of opinion.
    Even more problematic is the fact that we often don’t know the views of our “lost” customers — those who won’t come back to buy and those desirable customers who have never bought from us in the first place. Therefore, an early step in the planning process involves interviewing a sampling of three critical customer/client groups: current customers, the ones we have lost, and the ones in our target group who have never bought from us.The goal? To find out what they think of our firm, our products and services, and our competitors in comparison to us. Also, to identify what they will need from us in the future. 
  2. How do we see ourselves and our business environment? This portion of planning comes in two parts: an overview of our firm’s structure and systems, and an analysis of our business and industry, including our competitors.
    There will always be a discrepancy between how we see ourselves and how others see us, between what we intend and what others infer about our intentions and expectations. In addition, how we think we run our business will differ from how our managers and employees see it.As a result, we need to find out their perceptions and their recommendations for change. We have to ask them in a risk-free environment, while guaranteeing confidentiality. This process of asking employees is an important ingredient to eliciting their full cooperation with our goals. Without this knowledge, many firms will stall in their growth.The second part entails looking at our present and future markets, the products and services we provide now and could provide in the future, and the resources (financial, technical, and human) we have available to bring our product and services to market. It also involves examining our methods of distribution, pricing, advertising and PR, as well as the efforts and plans of our competitors.

    The answer to the question, “How do we see ourselves?” makes a statement about the uniqueness, desirability and competitiveness of our products and services, as well as the efficiency with which we are developing and promoting them. It also helps to define our core competencies, our abilities that are difficult or impossible for others to emulate and that give us an advantage over competition, and the characteristics that our buying public most appreciates.


  3. How do we see the future? We can’t predict the future, but we can imagine it.One way of looking down the road is to ask, “What are the driving forces (technological, business and economic, political, human and social, and environmental) that will shape our industry in the future? What elements move our industry?”Examples of driving forces include the aging of the buying public, new technology, a demand for mass customization, etc. Trade association journals, newspapers and business magazines are full of articles about these forces.Next, we fit our driving forces into three future scenarios:
    • A dog-eat-dog environment where competition in our industry will be more fierce than ever
    • An industry that is fundamentally changed in some significant way
    • An industry that is “the same as now, only better”

Then we ask, “How could these driving forces contribute to the future of our industry looking either extraordinarily cutthroat, dramatically different and changed, or bigger and better?”

Next, we think about what our firm would have to look like and be like in order to compete in each of these three scenarios. What technology would we have to be using? What kinds of products and services would we need to provide? What abilities would our personnel need?

4. What are we going to do about it? We now have three sets of data: how our customers perceive us, how our firm is actually working and the competencies we have in place, and what we think our business needs to look like in the future to remain competitive. What do we do with it all?

By now it should be clear that we can’t plan strategy by ourselves. Not only is it a heavy burden for one or two people, but implementation is problematic at best if the people who have to carry it out are not included in the process from the beginning.

For these reasons, data gathering and planning requires different meetings between different groups of people at different times. Besides our employee staff, this could include get-togethers with suppliers and distributors for the explicit purpose of enhancing our strategic thinking, customer focus groups, and other businesses for the purpose of benchmarking.

A meeting of senior managers (preferably a two-day retreat away from the office) to lay out the information gathered so far would be the next step The task at this retreat is to design in general terms what the firm should look like in five years, given the information in hand. This design should include the size of the firm, the products and services, the various markets, delivery processes, etc. Then the group needs to define what the firm would need to look like in two and a half years in order to serve as a platform for the five-year plan.

Most of the time is spent planning the upcoming year of business, keeping in mind the need to create a platform for the two-and-a-half year vision as well as the constraints and opportunities of where the firm is now. This plan should be specific in terms of target markets, financial goals, specific action plans to reach these goals, and the resources that will be needed.

So far, so good, but we’re not done yet. The strategy has to be cascaded down into the various departments for discussion and for the development of departmental and individual action plans. Then it needs to get recycled back to the senior levels for their overview, and then back down the ranks until everyone is going in the same direction on the same boat. This step is crucial to ensure that the strategic plan will actually take hold and propel the company forward.

At first blush, strategic planning can seem like an overwhelming undertaking, especially for small businesses. Au contraire! It can and should be taken in steps, and should not be taken all at the same time. Furthermore, strategy-making is a process that does not begin and end with definite boundaries. Rather, it has to be revisited throughout the business year.

Lastly, involving all employees in the process can seem like a fruitless task. However, the facts are that it is not fruitless and that it dramatically engages the loyalty and productivity of employees.

Happy planning!

Bernard Liebowitz and his firm specialize in strategic planning, organization design and development, and management development and coaching.

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