Throughout the many speeches and seminars I’ve participated in, I’ve had the privilege to look under the hood of countless companies around the world to see what worked well, what went poorly, and what could use some fine-tuning. All successful companies have at least one thing in common: a commitment to strategically plan the future, using the lessons from the past while introducing new data that comes in.
When trying to improve your strategic planning as a company, the first and most crucial step is to closely examine the plan you already have in place. No one knows your business better than you do, so chances are, a lot of the plan already in place will be valid and useful moving forward. There are, of course, some simple yet powerful ways you can build upon your current strategy.
As a business, you are selling something, whether it’s a nuts-and-bolts product or a helpful service. Either way, you have an invaluable resource that’s continually in your focus: customers! Informally, ask your customers (the people who buy and use your products, as well as suppliers, advisory board members, and employees) to find the holes and gaps in your current strategy. Remember that employees are customers as well, not only of your product or services, but of management. They are the people most hands-on with your product, and they are the experts who best know its everyday positives and negatives.
Another resource at your disposal to examine your current strategic plan is your banker; present your plan to him or her and ask for feedback. Then, ask senior executives that your firm is recruiting for more feedback. The point is that it’s imperative to keep an open, honest, and free-flowing dialogue with all of the stakeholders in your company. The best ideas don’t come from computers, newspapers, or slide presentations – they come from people.
Restructure Your Focus
The best strategies are those that focus on a company’s strengths. Let’s talk about how you can restructure your strategic focus to work from your areas of strength. One way is to install an internal/external process to first define strengths. Why do people do business with you? Why do people want to work for you? What should we no longer do? What can we be best in the world at? How do our partners (bankers, suppliers, distributors, employees, and industry associates) view us? The answers may be scary and surprising, but they are invaluable when planning your company’s future.
Next, learn to say no. Have specific criteria that an initiative must meet in order to merit further consideration. At a minimum, adopt the “sleep on it” approach. Normally, great ideas look different 24-48 hours after they’ve first surfaced.
Finally, play the game of “100 chips.” In a meeting, remind team members that “we only have 100 chips” to do all that we need to do (sell, market, develop, travel, and train). This way, we can push ourselves to make more conscientious decisions. With this limit in place, you can better prioritize and direct the team to make sure all points of the plan are addressed and, ultimately, accomplished.
Your commitment to your strategic plan is crucial to the success of your business. To commit, you must revisit the plan on a regular basis. To make this simpler and more people-friendly, the plan should be condensed into a brief that runs one to two pages. Set a schedule to review the plan, at a minimum when monthly financial results are discussed. Course correction should happen frequently, but not radically. An annual deeper dive should be quite effective and less time-consuming if we keep our plan in mind all year. Think of it as you would take care of your automobile. If you keep up with your oil changes and preventative maintenance, there won’t be any big surprises come inspection time.
Also, there should be a mechanism wherein fresh data is shared with key leaders, validated by each expert’s time in the field, and vetted through lost sale reports. Work this mechanism out with the key players who help to create your plan.
Lastly, understand who the customer is, and be intensely focused on the current and long-term value of that individual/group. If you do this, you can help keep priorities in place.
Review Early and Often
When your plan has been created and put it place, it’s necessary to test to see if all of your hard work is paying off. Here are a few easy tests for your strategy:
- Compare projected sales vs. actual sales, gross margins, and cash flow
- Talk to customers, especially those who choose to buy from your competitors
- Give yourself an agreed-upon timeframe, success criteria, and mechanism to determine if the plan’s results require staying on, or shifting, the course
- Don’t bet the company on any one initiative
After running these tests, you will receive new and crucial data as to your plan’s success or shortcomings. As mentioned earlier, new data is just as valuable as past data.
Now that you have your plan completed, put into action and tested, your job isn’t complete. Remember that your work is infinite. In order to be successful, this plan must be ever-evolving. That may seem daunting, but if you recognize that the plan is made using current knowledge and that new information is needed to validate your plan, you can then agree to an easy-to-remember 5-step tactic of “plan, do, check, review, and revise.” Review your strategic plan regularly and incorporate as much information as you can. Soon enough, your company will be on the path to success.