There's NEVER a bad time to plan

Plan your work and work your plan – Napoleon Hill

The Covid-19 pandemic has injected a massive shot of urgency into every business leader’s veins! Firefighting has become the norm. Clients and customers disappeared. Workforces were furloughed and costs were cut. All this pressure and with no relief in sight.

I wrote much of the following article pre-pandemic when circumstances were very different, but the principles are the same today…..

Strategic Planning is the most vital element of every business even in the most difficult times. Without at least one eye focussed on the future, the business simply spins its wheels.

Unless commitment is made, there are only promises and hopes; but no plans. Peter F. Drucker

Now, this may, or may not come as a shock to you, even before the pandemic there are many tens of thousands of businesses who didn’t have a strategy of any kind, and they still don’t. Remarkably, and more by luck than design, they bumble along doing reasonably well financially, but they’re fragile and exposed to the destructive vagaries of external pressures. Many as we have discovered couldn’t survive the pressures of lockdown; even those not in the crosshairs of the virus-like hospitality, retail and the arts.

Others put concerted effort, time and money into developing a strategic straight jacket of their own making, aiming for targets which became irrelevant over time. A small proportion really grasped the concept of having a robust, yet adaptable strategic intent making business easier and increasing their likelihood of sustained success even in difficult operating circumstances.

The Eisenhower Priority Matrix

Forgive me for a moment as I drift into management consultant territory. We’re talking here about the top left quadrant of the “Eisenhower Matrix” – those responsibilities of leaders that are “Important but not urgent”, in other words, strategy.

The problem is that in this volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world we hardly ever get time to consider the important but not urgent. Everyone wants a piece of you, your time, your attention and yes, your (company’s) money. But, “Are you running a business, or growing a business where others are empowered to run it today?” The latter requires strong strategic intent, allied with confident intentional adaptability.

So, what does strategic planning look like for most organisations?

Let’s consider four common approaches in order of popularity:

1. Ignore it and it might all go away – “We’ll be alright if we keep doing the same as we do now”. This approach ignores the VUCA world we live in and is very high risk.

2. Analysis by paralysis – “Let’s gather as much Big Data as we can and hope that meaning, understanding and direction of travel will somehow miraculously appear in our laps.” I call this the “Cap’n Jack Sparrow” strategy – he had a compass that didn’t point north, instead, it took you to your heart’s desire. This simply creates a demand for more and more data fuelling procrastination.

3. Engage strategic consultants – “We need help to see the wood for the trees”. This is a positive step, and much can be done with this approach. At best though, a brilliant Strategic Plan is devised but because it’s effectively a view of the world today, and is a best guess of what will happen in the VUCA world of tomorrow, by the time the second year of the plan is in action it may no longer be wholly relevant. Then the leadership beats themselves and everyone else up for failing to reach the arbitrary imaginary targets that were set in the reality the “old world”.

4. Develop the capability for “Adaptable Strategic Intent” – In this scenario, organisations develop a dynamic adaptable approach to strategy. Here, it’s fine to create a Core Strategic Plan, but adaptability is designed by introducing sophisticated internal and external systems to sense important changes in the VUCA world that impinge upon the core plan. Flexing occurs regularly and persistently to adapt the strategy to the new environment. Its rather like continually evolving the organisation’s DNA in response to change.

Strategic thinking is a fundamental habit

To my mind strategy should be a fundamental habit of an organisation, and not a “dog for Christmas” approach. Adaptable organisations don’t suffer the annual or five-yearly planning burden that everyone wants to avoid get done as quickly as possible, and get back to concentrating on the “real work”! It is so seductive to want to “run” the company, and not “build” it intentionally. When you also link budget allocation to planning the stakes and blood pressures go up even more.

Adaptable Strategic Intent requires a number of things to succeed.

  1. It needs the understanding and total buy-in of the executive team.

  2. The leadership needs to explain to everyone else why their approach has a high likelihood of success, and how it will affect everyone; their contribution and accountability.

  3. Systems and processes are developed to enhance internal and external organisational awareness and integration.

  4. New sources of strategic awareness are integrated into the planning and execution process, such as peer-to-peer learning at all levels of the organisation.

  5. Constant and multi-directional communication of the organisation’s strategic decisions; how they were made and how everyone’s contribution will change.

  6. Having a leadership team who not only buys into the concept of Adaptable Strategic Intent but also exemplifies it by their actions is fundamental to building a business in a VUCA world.

The strategic power of diverse executive peer-to-peer boardrooms

So, if strategic intent needs to be dynamic and intentional, how can a CEO/MD spend regular quality time in the “Important but not urgent quadrant” of the Eisenhower matrix?

The answer to this conundrum is getting a regular dose of internal and external strategic input. This comes from a balance between creating regular privileged strategic time and accessing productive high-value strategic insight and action. This need drove the creation of the Alpha Group Executive Boards. Our Boardrooms are a place for talented decision-makers leading SMEs to collectively identify and solve complex strategic problems, and plan for new strategic opportunities.

No matter how talented and experienced you are in your particular sector, why should you be expected to know everything, it’s unreasonable and unfair? And if ignored, it’s these “unknown important but non-urgent spaces” in and around your business that either become your new opportunity or the left-field disruption that undermines you.

Because of the diversity of the Board Members in Alpha Groups we’re able to promise, on the basis of eight years data, they will double, or even triple, their company value after two to three years of joining.

A diverse crowd will always outperform a monoculture, and a diverse crowd of experts is capable of amazing things. Gary Coulton

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