This is why strategic plans are the worst!

This post originally appeared on the blog over at the Disruptive Strategy Co. It was one of my prouder stances (read: rants) on why being active in your business’ strategy is better than some stale template you never really use.

I hate excuses. I think that the old way of creating long form strategic plans is an exercise in preemptively creating excuses for your business. Strategic plans are so often argued over, passively decided on and luxuriously spiral bound for businesses that haven’t yet done the work necessary to truly understand the impact of the decisions they are (or aren’t) making in their business. My favorite offenders are the one-page downloads that promise to, in one-page, definitively nail down the over-arching strategy you’re going to implement or execute on in your business. Definitively. All that stuff that looks just like strategic planning busy work is just that, it’s busy work and a scapegoat for you to blame your business shortcomings on later.

Don’t get it twisted though, I’m not at all down on crafting strategy for your business. Articulating goals is great. Teasing out effective ways for you to track whether or not your efforts are pushing you towards those goals, even better. Evaluating the decisions you make everyday against the backdrop of the vision and values you and your business stand for, the best. I’m just down on how maybe some institutions frame strategic planning…<<cough cough>> Some bad “business” mentors/consultants <<cough cough>>

But, that’s hard.

Getting to real understanding and depth in your business and for your customers means doing the work to understand more than just what you do and what you offer. It means getting to the heart of why your consumers choose (and maybe keep choosing) you, quantifying the real value you offer (not what you think you offer) and the ability to objectively identify what’s working and not working in your business.

Let’s set the scene. You’re a new-ish business owner. (In business for yourself for less than 3 years.) You’ve been at your craft for a while, have moved a few units and/or have delivered a some hours of your services. You believe you bring value to your target market and you may even have a few testimonials on your website that support that claim. You wake up one morning and decide that you need strategy to get your business to the next level. That’s what you’ve read on the internet from your favorite “teach you how to build a business” business guru so it must be true. You’re first, albeit unintentional, excuse as to why you haven’t grown into the lifestyle or business size that you want is that you haven’t had a good strategy.

So you set off one morning and Google all kinds of fun strategic planning based keywords and over and over again you see the same kinds of results:

  • Articles about the Balanced Scorecard
  • Wikipedia Definition
  • HBR Articles
  • Forbes Articles
  • Software/Web-App Planning Tools
  • Articles
  • Assortment of colleges and university course resources

Great. Now what?

I know what. You download the worksheets, read the blog posts, listen to a few podcasts and probably even peruse a few HBR articles. That’s great, you just spent hours getting your learn on. I’m all for learning but your shotgun scatter patterned attempt at muscling through how to create a strategic plan has forced you to a cross roads. Also on top of that, you’re still not even sure what the value of a strategic plan is for you and your business. #mixedmessages

At this point you’re making a choice.

  1. You are either going to keep powering through and are going to try to recreate a strategic plan from some template or example and try to force what you “think” is important into a mold that most likely has nothing to do with who you are and what your business actually does.
  2. Or you’ll quit. You’ll quit and move on and rationalize that you are too busy, too small or that crafting strategy really isn’t right for YOUR business.

Both are terrible but, are totally natural reactions. It’s the result of oversaturation/information overload, you’re wrestling with how to spend what scarce resources you can muster on this task and business guru’s trying to package some program to sell you in a $497 ecourse.

That’s why strategic plans are the worst. You just spent all this time trying to figure it out and have made your way to creating something that is not at all authentic to you and your business or you move on from it all together.

Strategy is important and it hurts my heart that business owners never get to see the value of good strategy. Strategy that comes from deliberately thinking through problems and opportunities and actively participating in the choices that come from that thinking process.

Instead of trying to slap together some word document that you’ll only reference once or twice a year try this instead.

The Strategic Un-Planning Process

Below I’m going to outline an example process that you could use in lieu of the templates you just downloaded that I bet will work better for you and matter more to you. It’s not the be-all-end-all in strategic planning but if I can at least help one person who’s reading this create something that has the potential to be a real asset over some generic nonsense it’s 100% worth it.

1. Figure out what your long game really is for your business and be able to articulate that long game. Is it a specific idea of what you’re life will look like, some large financial goal or building a legacy business. That’s going to be the big idea you measure the choices you make everyday against.

2. In smaller intervals what kinds of goals are you going to have to hit to get to your long game. In strategic planning speak these would be your strategic aspirations. Is it buying a building, controlling 40% of your market share, selling one-billion hamburgers? Again get specific.

3. Repeat number two again but do that process for each of the individual goals you listed from step two. That should get you to a place where you can identify the actions you need to keep track of on a daily/weekly/monthly basis to get you to those goals. I’m all for impact and engagement but to be the most effective you need to associate actions with dollars.

4. Look outside your business. Talk to your customers about the value they really get from your offerings. What are the biggest pain points that customers can specifically share with you that you’ve solved. This will help you get even more focused in your offering and how to better position it in the market.

Before we move on I just want to recap what you will have really done up until this point. Going from 1–4 means you’ll have honestly reflected on what matters most to you, you’ll have broken down to at least two tiers worth of goals that you need to hit to get there and started to work out why people are engaging with you to better frame the actions you need to take to get more customers through the door. We are flying through these steps in a very simplistic way but this is all the work that I talked about in the beginning of this post.

5. Look at your business. Really, truly, objectively look at your business. Do your day to day actions reflect the value that you bring to the market? What does it cost to get one more customer? Is there a gap between what you planned to do at the start of your business and what you are actually doing? Are you making excuses right now because there’s a little bit of dissonance stirring in your brain about this stuff? It’s time to do something about that right now. You need to DECIDE what the actions are in your business that are the biggest drivers in how you deliver value as well as get in front of potential new customers. If you’re struggling with this part I’ve built a decision making framework that you can download for free. (Notice it’s not a one-page strategic planning template. You’re welcome.)