How Alignment can be the Key to Strategic Planning


This post was originally published at

“Alignment” is one of those buzzwords that gets thrown around a lot and then often forgotten. Unfortunately, the lack of alignment within a team can easily cause a great plan to fail. As recent as a couple years ago, my approach to strategic planning consisted of myself, alone in my office, with a whiteboard, research data on trends and demographics, and whatever else could help me develop creative and impactful solutions to achieving my clients’ objectives. I would pull in specific team members for advice, or to help confirm timelines, but my approach wasn’t truly collaborative. At the end of all my hard work came the presentations to get buy-in, first internally and then with the client. I can still feel the butterflies in my stomach before such meetings. Would they see the logic in the trends and data insights I had discovered? Would they like my ideas? I often felt like I was alone on an island, but that’s my job right? I am the strategist and I get paid to create brilliant plans that achieve objectives.

That individualistic approach to strategic planning never felt right to me. When I moved back to Portland in early 2014, it was the perfect opportunity to re-evaluate the way I worked and the way I engaged my team. I was no longer satisfied with just getting buy-in, I wanted to create passion in the execution of a plan. My ah-ha moment came soon after while having coffee with Reggie Wideman, Sr. Director of Strategy at Janrain.

“The job of a strategist is not to tell people what to do,” Reggie told me. “Our job is to develop a framework for other people’s success.”

Since then I have re-invented an engaging and collaborative approach to strategic planning that leverages my team’s ideas and experience to create actionable plans that include regular review and adjustment. I have broken down this approach into 4 high level steps that can be further customized to meet your specific needs.

  • Step One: External Discovery
  • Step Two: Internal Alignment
  • Step Three: Actionable Planning
  • Step Four: Flexible Execution

Step One: External Discovery
My first rule of teamwork is to make my team’s work easier, not to add to it. Collaboration is a wonderful thing when it’s productive and generates actionable results. However, getting the whole team in a room to talk out every aspect of a project can quickly break timelines and overwhelm teammates. As strategic planners and facilitators of collaboration, it’s our job to do the work ahead of time that empowers collaboration. Typically, this initial process consist of an external discovery to inform the team in a way that streamlines decision making and focuses creativity in productive ways. In my world, examples include demographic data, user experience research, competitive landscape analysis, market forces and opportunity identification. Your specific needs might be different based on your core objective, but the key is to understand what information will add value, and then display it in a visual way that can be quickly understood and utilized.

Step Two: Internal Alignment
Here’s where the collaboration with your team is critical, and it all starts with a clear understanding of purpose. Most meetings and workshops are initiated by reviewing objectives, goals and an agenda. All of these elements reflect the “what” of our efforts. I’ve found through my experience that the fundamental “why” element is too often ignored. The “why” should come first. “Why” defines the impact our efforts will have on our client, their customers and even the world. It’s the clear definition and understanding of our purpose that drives the development of a strategy that will ultimately satisfy the true needs of our clients. As the time proven Six Sigma 5 Whys Exercise has shown us, asking “why” a number of times drives us past symptoms to the root cause of our clients’ need.

Now that the team understands their purpose, here is one way to facilitate a collaborative exercise.

  1. Visually display the most pertinent data insights and trends to be used in a workshop environment.
  2. Review the insights from your initial discovery with the team and solicit feedback. Add that feedback to your visuals until the collective understanding and ideas of the group are displayed for everyone to see.
  3. Lead the group in a brainstorm exercise to identify the challenges, market forces and any ideas or solutions the group may have as the conversation progresses.
  4. Once the brainstorming is complete, prioritize each section based on what has the most impact on your core objective.
  5. Draft an outline of an actionable plan.

Step Three: Actionable Planning
This step should begin with a high level group discussion. Creating this high level plan is an excellent way to close a collaborative exercise because it converts the group’s ideas into action items and creates accountability. An actionable plan should minimally include:

  • Core objective
  • Timeline with key milestones
  • Roles and responsibilities
  • Immediate next steps

Once the outline has been established, it’s time to let the group get back to doing their respective jobs, and time for us as strategic planners to start filling in the details. Examples of these details include:

  • Defining resources
  • Anticipating costs
  • Identifying the expected impact and ROI

At this stage it’s important to reconvene with specific team members to review, adjust and approve the details for which they are accountable.

Step Four: Flexible Execution
Even the best plan will change as it’s executed. Far too often I see professionals react to potential change as failure. Instead, the potential need for change is a positive indication that our understanding has evolved and that we have better defined our needs. If we expect change, and are prepared to review and adjust as we progress, we eliminate the typical reactionary mentality and can instead be more proactive and confident in our execution. Utilize your milestones to review progress, identify challenges or opportunities, and don’t be afraid to refine your plan as necessary. At each milestone it is fundamental to update the group on the progress and utilize their expertise to refine the original plan as necessary.

I love the saying, “Great leaders don’t get people to follow. Great leaders inspire others to lead.” By including our teammates, our clients and our customers in specific phases of strategic planning, we can achieve things that we wouldn’t have even dreamed of on our own.

Thoughts? Reactions? Advice? Leave them in the comments section below.