Strategic planning is a management process designed to set the organization on a path to successfully achieving future goals. Strategic planning ensures the organization's human and operational resources, energy and stakeholders are properly focused on achieving goals and objectives, and able to adjust to a changing business environment as needed. It requires imagining a successful future. That is difficult for some business leaders because they have difficulty thinking in new ways and with new perspectives. Developing the ability to imagine the future requires becoming a strategic thinker.
Organizations are always at risk of developing inertia which means they are doing the same things the same way to meet current, rather than future, goals. Plugging along with no vision for the future usually equates to a lack of innovation, uninspired myopic employees and eventually an organization unable to compete well in the marketplace. The business environment is now in a state of constant transformation due to globalization and technology advancements, so organizations that fail to do strategic planning risk failure. However, calling together executives, managers and unit heads and ordering them to prepare a strategic plan is not likely to be successful because they may not know how think strategically.
First Things First
Successful strategic planning requires strategic thinking. People who are able to think strategically can bring new perspectives and contribute a fresh point of view. This is one of the reasons that an organization with a diverse workforce tends to perform better financially. The business has access to new perspectives and new approaches through its employees. Diverse employees are not locked into conventional thinking, so there is a large capacity to imagine new ideas and solutions to future market needs.
The characteristics of a strategic thinker are quite different from conventional thinkers. Blake Woolsey with the Mitchell Communications Group, a public relations firm, did an excellent job of describing eight characteristics of strategic thinkers. A strategic thinker is future-based, curious, a good steward of resources, a risk taker, able to recognize projects that are urgent and important, able to adjust and modify approaches based on circumstances, a life-long learner, and creative. The strategic thinker is proactive, rather than reactive. Being a proactive thinker means actively looking ahead to find new business opportunities and to identify unique solutions that enable the business to take advantage of those opportunities.
Let the Ideas Flow
Strategic thinking is a bit of an art form. Ordering someone to think strategically in preparation for strategic planning will not work. Assuming key people do want to overcome conventional thinking, there are several strategies for developing strategic thinking. One is to ask business leaders to question how work is currently done and to learn if their employees understand how their effort connects to strategic priorities. Doing the same things the same way without question stifles imaginative thinking. Another strategy is to hold sessions where business leaders are asked to suspend criticism and judgment as people imagine the future. Unfortunately, everyone has conscious and unconscious biases, so it may take some real effort to avoid being judgmental.
Other strategies include giving employees at all levels of the organization access to communication tools that let them present new ideas and solutions that others can comment on. For example, employee Resource Groups (ERGs) can carry on crossover communication between groups or include diverse people in their groups (i.e. a woman's leadership ERG includes men or an ERG for Hispanic employees has representatives from the African-American employee community). People who surround themselves, in the office or in ERGs, with only others who agree with them and have the same background are likely stifling the imagination and creativity needed for strategic thinking.
A strategic plan articulates where an organization is going in the future and the activities needed to reach goals. The only way to reach this point is by developing organizational strategic thinking. It takes real effort, but it is effort that can pay off in business sustainability.
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