Strategic Planning 101: The Dos and Don’ts of Establishing a Powerful Plan
Having worked on both the client and agency side, I’ve been in what I’ll refer to as “Big Idea Meetings” so many times I’ve lost count. People firing off ideas, lofty goals and grandiose plans—all of which require a lot of resources and a whole lot of work.
Let’s face it. Complex plans, especially those bordering on overly complex or bureaucratic, can make mental pretzels out of even the most brilliant minds. Oftentimes, those big ideas leave meeting attendees scratching their heads pondering, “That sounds great, but how are we going to do all THAT?”
So, how can you compartmentalize those big plans into bite-sized, micro-level executions that keep everyone marching toward the finish line together? Before getting into my philosophical list of do’s and don’ts when it comes to wrangling those daunting projects, I want to start by digging into what strategic planning is and how it can set your big idea up for successful execution.
Strategy is a fancy term that gets thrown around often, especially in business and sports (warning: rampant sports analogies ahead) but one that often carries a rather nebulous, complex, and overwhelming reputation. Merriam-Webster’s primary definition of strategy is, “the science and art of employing the political, economic, psychological, and military forces of a nation or group of nations to afford the maximum support to adopted policies in peace or war.” However, it’s their secondary definition that hit the nail on the head for my purposes.
the art of devising or employing plans or stratagems toward a goal
It even includes one extremely important word I want to shine a light on: goal.
Do: Establish goals first
“What’s the goal?”
Ah yes, my catchphrase. The first step in establishing a powerful plan is to clearly identify what you’re trying to achieve. In order to truly start off on the right track, I always begin with a clearly defined SMART goal. As cliché as it may be, this is the foundation that everything else is built upon:
Specific — What are we doing and why are we doing it? Get specific and break the larger goal into smaller, specific, actionable items. “I want to get better at sports,” would not be a smart goal. “I want to make 100 consecutive off-handed basketball layups in under five minutes by the end of the year,” is more like it (just resist the urge to tackle the “how” for now).
Measurable — Set goals that are trackable. This will give you invaluable insight and context to guide the decisions that support your overall strategy.
Attainable — Is this goal achievable? It can be challenging, but make sure it’s possible.
Realistic — Be mindful here. Is this REALLY something that can be achieved with the resources available and by the deadline you have in mind?
Time-Bound — Speaking of a deadline, set a firm date that everyone can be held accountable for hitting.
Once the goal is in place, now it’s time to incorporate strategic planning. Let’s stick with my earlier goal as an example and say you’re really trying to get better at basketball.
The Goal: To make 100 consecutive off-handed basketball layups in under five minutes by the end of the year. This goal is specific, measurable, challengingly attainable, realistic, and time-bound.
The Strategy: What do I need to do to make this happen? What athletic abilities do I need to influence to accomplish this goal? Since I’m right handed, it’s clear I’ll need to become more proficient with my left hand. I need to be able to build the athletic ability, stamina, and coordination to pull this off by the end of the year.
The Tactics: Based on my strategy, what tactics can I deploy to accomplish my goal? Maybe I can start brushing my teeth with my left hand instead of my right to get used to using it more. Or start by dribbling for five minutes with my left hand every day when I get home from work. I can even keep track of how many dribbles I make in one minute and incrementally raise my time once I start getting the hang of it. This is where flowing creativity can allow you to thrive.
But be careful.
Don’t: Think Tactics First
“Most of us are afraid of strategy, because we don’t feel confident outlining one unless we’re sure it’s going to work. And the ‘work’ part is all tactical, so we focus on that.” – Seth Godin
Dividing a big idea into manageable next steps means establishing goals and performing some strategic planning to support those goals. Talking tactics is fun, especially with all the options at our disposal, but be careful not to put the cart before the horse. You must establish what it is you’re trying to get done before you establish how you’re going to get it done.
Following my example, it seems a bit silly to think of all the ways I can improve specific basketball skills if I don’t aspire to become a better overall basketball player.
Once you establish your “what” and “why,” then you can start brainstorming “how.” Seth Godin breaks down the differences between strategy and tactics in true marketing-guru style in this blog post. In essence, though, tactics are great for the short-term but strategy is what’s needed for long-term success.
Do: Prioritize the Next Play
To make things more palatable, devise smaller game plans that live within the framework of the larger goal. The purpose of distilling the larger plan is to stay focused on the smaller, purposeful items that consistently map toward the end game. Need to score a touchdown? Focus on getting first downs. Need to score runs? Get on base. Need to become better with off-handed layups? Let’s not declare for the NBA Draft just yet, Hoop Dreams. Go one step at a time.
Don’t: Be Afraid to Call an Audible
“The only constant in life is change—Heraclitus” – Dad
In true Michael Scott fashion, I have to quote my dad quoting Heraclitus for the simple fact that I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard him pass down that pearl of wisdom. Plans can change, evolve and continue to be dialed in over time. A powerful plan leaves room for adaptation and optimization, which means flexibility is a necessity. If your tactics aren’t impactful or getting you close enough to your goals, it’s OK to experiment—which may include doubling down on what is working well.
If brushing my teeth left-handed isn’t helping me handle a basketball any better, why not try something else?
Make a plan and work the plan, but don’t be afraid to explore outside of the box a bit, either.
Except maybe stay away from calling a pass play on the one-yard line with the Super Bowl on the line when your all-pro running back, with a sobriquet of “Beast Mode”, is eagerly awaiting the opportunity to plow his way into the end zone…on second down. But I digress (I did warn you about the sports analogies).
“Stop overthinking. Start doing.” – Gary Vaynerchuck
In the end, make sure you can differentiate between your goals, strategies, and tactics, and try not to let the ever-elusive carrot of perfection get in the way of simply taking action. Bringing structure to big ideas means establishing a powerful plan, which makes these tips well worth keeping in mind the next time you find yourself scratching your head after a “Big Idea” meeting.