A 5-Step Guide to Strategic Planning for Business Leaders

strategic planning for businesses

Business leaders don’t often find success by pure luck. In most cases, success starts with a goal, motivation, and a detailed strategic plan. Those who take the time to develop a comprehensive strategic plan find it easier to remain focused on what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and how they’re going to get it done.

In his book Done Right, Workfront CEO Alex Shootman writes:

“Planning tends to be an expansive process. You usually start from a simple point — the definition of a strategic objective — and then try to encompass every possible eventuality and option along the way. But the better model is contractive. Break your extraordinary goal into key initiatives, milestones, and best next actions.”

This is a winning summary of how the strategic planning process is designed to help you define the overall mission of your business or organization, assigning day-to-day work tasks a specific purpose. Without a clearly defined strategic plan, employees lack understanding of why their work matters, resulting in decreased employee morale, productivity, and retention.

To ensure that your team stays focused on working toward common goals, we've outlined what we believe to be the five most important steps of strategic planning.

1. Conduct a SWOT Analysis

Before you start defining where you want to go, you need to find out where you are with a SWOT analysis. What does your team do well? What external factors may impact your success?

“SWOT” stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Make a note of the strengths and weaknesses in your staff, products or services, financial resources, etc. Look for existing opportunities such as launching new programs, hiring, or global expansion. Lastly, threats could be anything that may negatively impact your efforts, such as what your competitors are doing, or your own cash-flow issues.

In an article titled, “Strategic Planning: A 10-Stop Guide,” writers for the Social Enterprise Alliance (SEA) say this process helps “provide an understanding of how the organization relates to its external environment.” Understanding these factors will give you a better idea of what you are capable of, and where you need to improve. From there, you can easily begin setting clear, realistic business goals.

2. Define Your Mission & Vision

Since strategic planning is all about getting your business to a certain point in the future, it is imperative to clearly define what that point looks like. But take note: Vision and Mission are two different things. A vision statement usually describes where you want your team to be in the next three to five years or more. A mission statement, on the other hand, describes what your team is doing today to turn that vision into reality.

Entrepreneur Patrick Hull defines a vision statement as “a broad view of how your company is going to leave an impact on customers and the greater community.” A mission statement, he says, must be “a clear, concise declaration about your business strategy.”

These two statements can be written by a manager, but ideally a leader would devise them collaboratively with the team. Having wider input could improve the overall statements, and everyone will feel more connected and motivated to achieve the company’s goals if they are involved in crafting them.

3. Determine Your Strategy

In order to break down how each team, department, and individual employee can contribute to the company’s mission and vision, everyone should be involved in coming up with key strategies to reach the collective goals. Work together to identify new programs and approaches that are going to help steer your progress toward the agreed-upon targets.

The results of your SWOT analysis can be particularly helpful when determining strategies. Focus on matching strengths with opportunities, and addressing the identified threats and weaknesses. Discuss which tasks you want to prioritize, and what resources are going to be allocated toward accomplishing each goal.

4. Implement Your Strategy

You’ve done your SWOT, defined your mission and vision, and determined your strategies. It is finally time to put those strategies into action through programs, budgets, and procedures. All resources should be organized with the group’s mission in mind, and team members should feel motivated to accomplish their own objectives. The amount of detail involved in each action item will vary depending on the size and complexity of each project and business structure.

No matter how many employees you are working with or what goals you are working toward, implementing new strategies can be made much easier with the a suitable operational system of record. By connecting work across your enterprise, the appropriate strategic planning software will ensure that employees are prioritizing the right work to achieve their company’s goals.

5. Evaluate Your Execution

Strategic planning is never actually finished. It is not enough to only do it once when you first start your business. In “Strategic Planning: A 10-Stop Guide,” the SEA team recommends “developing an action plan that addresses goals and specifies objectives and work plans on an annual basis.”

Ensure that you always have procedures in place to monitor and measure the progress toward accomplishing your goals, and keep in mind that those goals may change. You may need to make adjustments depending on changes in the external environment, or those within your own organization.

Workfront’s 2019 State of Work Survey shows U.S. workers said 61% of the work they do matters to them personally. While that is more than half, there is certainly room for improvement. Strategic planning is an excellent way to help your team understand why their work matters.

In Done Right, Shootman describes how he distinguishes whether his team members believe they are “pursuing an extraordinary goal or a pipe dream.” He writes that “people may be uncommitted for a variety of reasons, but you can generally get their concerns to the surface by asking deeper questions in four categories:

1. Is it clear? Is the task or project well-defined?
2. Is it achievable? What’s the confidence level in getting this done?

  1. Is it needed? Is this task or project necessary?
  2. Is it linked? Does it fit with the wider strategic priorities of the business?"

Of course, your team can only answer these questions if leaders are transparent about the company’s mission. Strategic planning is best done openly and collaboratively to minimize confusion, resolve any concerns, and ensure that everyone is motivated to work together toward a common goal.

(photo credit: AP x 90)