It’s common for business leaders to assemble their teams once or twice a year to review and renew company strategy. This is a sound business practice. Every company should have a clear strategy that is refreshed as business conditions and market factors evolve. And every company leader should be able to articulate that strategy. At the same time, I think the annual strategic planning ritual could benefit from a bit of tactical reality being infused into the process.
Sometimes strategic planning sessions can drift off into the world of ideals. That’s in part by design. It’s necessary to set the “idea permission meter” pretty high so that strategic discussions can at least explore what is within the art of the possible, even if those ideas aren’t exactly within the realm of practical. What I think sometimes gets lost in those discussions is the reality of today’s challenges.
For example, let’s say a company is struggling with the hindrances of outdated legacy systems; however, they don’t let that stop them from conceiving a mobile-heavy service strategy — one that their legacy systems cannot realistically support. They charge ahead, fueled by perceived market imperatives. Then, by the time next year’s strategy session rolls around, they rationalize all the compromises they made on that mobile-service model because practicality got in the way. I think they would have been better served if someone said, early on, “Wait a minute; we can’t even modernize our own core systems. Why are we tackling something even more aggressive when we haven’t solved yesterday’s problems?”
Being the “reality check” czar can sometimes be an unpopular role, but it’s important. There is risk in taking action, just as there is risk with inaction — and that risk is compounded if you ignore important facts. As you embark on strategic planning efforts, consider these guiding principles:
- Be realistic about today’s (and yesterday’s) unresolved problems. Don’t forget “here and now” as you contemplate the future. Does your strategy depend on competencies or resources you don’t have? If yes, don’t let that stop you; instead, solve for those limitations. Consider new talent, additional capacity, partners or outside help.
- Distinguish aspirations from specific objectives.
- And to paraphrase Voltaire, “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.”
In short, when you engage in strategic planning, keep it real. Based on your experiences with such planning, what would you recommend others do to improve outcomes?
Rod Travers is EVP at The Robert E. Nolan Co., a management consulting firm specializing in the insurance industry.
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