Strategic planning guide for leaders

Principles and practices that prepare you for success

When you think about strategic planning, what feelings come to mind? If dread, fear, or apathy come up, you are not alone.

Many of our clients describe their past strategy experiences as:

  • An exhausting and sometimes painful process
  • Making little, if any, measurable difference
  • The same thing year-after-year (even when they have had outside help)

It doesn’t have to be this way

Fathom’s approach to strategy is designed to create conditions where your entire organization experiences:

  • Renewed enthusiasm for, and a clearer path to, your organization’s ideal future
  • A re-energized culture and more powerful relationships among your team, your partners, and your clients
  • Sustained, unified action that reliably produces meaningful outcomes­

This strategic planning guide takes you through a set of principles and practices designed to help leaders and their organizations create strategies that move them toward the future they want to see.

You can also have a discussion with the Fathom team to explore how these ideas can apply to your organization.

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Chapters

Click to jump to any chapter OR scroll down to read in order

 
Chapter 1

Preparing yourself

At Fathom, strategy is about imagining and creating a more meaningful future for your organization and generating more value for the world you serve. It’s about creating conditions where potential, already present in your organization, is harnessed to build a future of thriving relationships and breakthrough business performance.

Every leader knows that strategy—positioning their company to win in the future—is essential, but many avoid it because it pushes them to operate in an arena where they don’t, and can’t, know the answers. However, being comfortable not knowing is right where you need to be if you want to lead a strategy process that creates the conditions for your organization to thrive. Use the following exercises to prepare yourself for the conversations that will yield the future you want to see.

Reflect on what drives you

Where does your energy come from?

Get clear about your personal goals, values, and commitments. Find a way to explore and articulate them, maybe with the help of a coach or mentor, and look at how they compliment the purpose, values, and goals of your organization. Take the time to put your discoveries into a form you can share with your team. The deeper you can dig into the relationship between your guiding principles and those of your organization the clearer you can be with your team about what you see and the origins of your passion.

 
What do you need from your team?

Leadership is an art form, and everyone’s expression of it is unique. While it might take years for you to identify your style, you can begin by explaining to your team the path you are on and communicating what you need from them in order to be successful. For example, if you tend to want to control every situation, explain to your team what you need in order to trust them and give them autonomy.

At the same time, ask your team members what they need from you and what they need from each other. The key is to be open, honest, and completely transparent. This is the only way you and your team will be able to give each other the kind of support needed to get through the hard work ahead.

 

Record and communicate agreements

When it comes to making strategy, organizations can be rife with battle scars, like initiatives launched with great fanfare and anticipation that quietly fade away after a few weeks or months. Or, the sudden termination of an active strategic focus without explanation. There will always be a reason that seems valid at the time, but the result—frustration, disillusionment, skepticism—will mean the next time around, rallying your team will be that much more difficult. Often, the solution is just a matter of giving your agreements presence.

Hold each other accountable

Represent, in some permanent form, what you and your team have decided is essential to the future of the business. When you capture expectations and commitments in a way that can be shared and regularly referenced, they are harder to forget, disregard, or make believe never existed. Maybe you have agreed to a weekly progress report, or there is an understanding of how individual decisions will be made? Once you record it, it is no longer debatable, and you and your team can hold each other to account.

 

Maintain your mindset

Trying to learn a new skill often involves remembering a set of actions and then attempting to do them in the right order or at the same time to achieve your goal. Adjust your grip, hold the club face flat, head down, swing through…you get the idea. Leading an organization with the right balance of presence and absence is no different. It is a dance learned over time, and even the most experienced executives discover new ways of being.

Below are a set of reminders that will help you be who you need to be to ensure your strategy has the best chance of success.

Create space for leadership

You don’t have the answers and you don’t need to have them. Have a sense of where you want to go but let the team figure out how to get there. Lead by letting others lead.

Lead by letting others lead #strategy
Honor what’s so

Don’t get bogged down in the past. Acknowledge the current situation and move on. Everything that has happened up until this point has contributed to getting you where you are today—in the enviable position of being able to design what comes next for your organization.

Listen with an open mind

The best work—and the most significant outcomes—come from a place of understanding and non-judgment. Forget what you think you know about each other and listen with an open mind.

Be comfortable being uncomfortable

Vulnerability is a powerful tool. Be honest and transparent, and others will follow.

 

 
Chapter 2

Preparing your team

Make sure your strategy team is set up to succeed right from the start. This will allow for better long-term outcomes, illustrate your commitment to the strategy, and ensure a more coherent team over the course of the strategic effort. Sustaining a high-performance team requires you to make intentional choices, be open to feedback, and be aware of changes.

Here are some questions to consider as you design your team and take on your initial team-building.

Which voices are needed?

When you build your team, consider which perspectives will be vital to include if the effort is to have the best chance of success. Probably, members of your senior leadership team. However, are there others who will improve the outcome based on their tenure and extensive tribal knowledge, their affinity for facts and details, or their willingness to challenge assumptions? Who, if not included, could undermine the effort? Who, if involved, would significantly enhance employee engagement? The point is to intentionally diversify the voices in the room to prevent homogeneous thought from torpedoing your efforts.

 

Where will the time come from?

There will have to be trade-offs. There is only so much time to go around, and any new effort will have to draw from somewhere. Have an honest dialogue with your team about time and energy and establish an agreement around how this new initiative fits into the hierarchy of other accountabilities. If you think it’s needed, re-prioritize with your team so everyone can acknowledge the changes and no one is caught off guard.

Any scars to share?

Negative past experiences often create a “proceed with caution” attitude, or worse, an assumption that things will never change. Meet with each member of your team one-on-one and share what you have experienced that could compromise the initiative and find out what stands in their way. Then come together as a group, put all of those things on the table (stripped of specifics that would implicate individuals) and have an open and objective conversation about how best to move forward in a way that builds on, but doesn’t ignore, what’s happened before.

 

Which behaviors are our allies or our enemies?

Organizations, like people, have behaviors that can work for and against their effectiveness. It could be first-rate meeting etiquette where everyone is on time and gets out early with clear next steps. Or, it could be an inherent distrust of new processes that come from the outside. What behaviors characterize your organization? Good or bad, get them out in the open, then identify the ones you want to leverage and those you need to develop or eliminate. As you proceed through the strategy process, use this list to establish expectations, determine priorities, and anticipate obstacles.

 

What is your warning signal?

When you get to the part of your journey when the going is tough, and the outcome less than clear, this is when you are most vulnerable to failure. Pay careful attention to focus and energy. At an early stage, identify a signal that any member can use to bring the group together if there are warning signs of waning enthusiasm or other threats to the strategy process. The agreement is that this signal guarantees attention by the entire team. This is the time to examine what has changed or is being neglected or forgotten, and to determine how to re-focus and re-energize.

 

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Chapter 3

Strategy vs. Planning

Before we go any further, let’s take care of a big issue: the tendency of leaders and their management teams to mix strategy and planning—two distinct disciplines—into one activity. By conflating the two, they mistakenly hamstring the design freedom that is necessary for strategy thinking with the constraints of planning such as cost, resources, and capabilities. The problem is evident when you compare some of the distinguishing characteristics.

 

Divorcing the disciplines

Looking closely at the above list, and it’s easy to understand why this blending occurs: self-preservation. After all, who wouldn’t feel more comfortable and sure of themselves in planning’s realm of perfectible facts and figures vs. strategy’s sphere of imperfect intuition and risky bets. As Roger Martin states in his excellent Harvard Business Review article, The Big Lie of Strategic Planning, “All executives know that strategy is important. But almost all also find it scary, because it forces them to confront a future they can only guess at. Worse, actually choosing a strategy entails making decisions that explicitly cut off possibilities and options.”

In reaction, they will gravitate toward the comfort of using familiar tools and talking about things they know—building detailed plans, elaborate models, large PowerPoint decks, and spreadsheets. As Martin continues, “This is a truly terrible way to make strategy. It may be an excellent way to cope with fear of the unknown, but fear and discomfort are an essential part of strategy making. In fact, if you are entirely comfortable with your strategy, there’s a strong chance it isn’t very good.”

Be comfortable not knowing if you want to lead a strategy process that creates conditions for your organization to thrive. #strategy #leadership

How to stay out of the comfort zone

1) Simultaneously establish separate planning and strategy initiatives, each with its team, process, timetables, and objectives.

This clear physical separation will help begin the process of mentally separating the two activities and also acknowledging that each requires a distinct, yet equally important, set of skills. Knowing there is a team prepared to plan for execution will allow your strategy team to concentrate on its mandate and to remain courageous when the conversations get difficult.

2) Be clear with your team about the conceptual differences between strategy and planning.

If you need, use the chart above for clarification. Then give your team an opportunity to further clarify the distinction by going through the process of creating its own Strategy vs. Planning chart. The result can be used throughout the strategy process as a reference point if anyone feels like the team is getting off track and pulled into planning territory.

3) Describe, in the simplest possible terms, the work the strategy team is undertaking.

To prevent misunderstandings and wasted time, begin your strategy process by clearly defining what you are setting out to do.

We suggest something like:

We are creating a statement that will establish where we will play (who our customers are) and how we will win (our value proposition) to create lasting value.

There are a number of foundational ideas that can and should support this statement, like purpose, values, and brand promise, but the simplicity gives the work focus and makes it feel manageable. It also distinguishes it from planning by making clear that it is not about execution. And, finally, when it comes time to reveal your organization’s new strategy to your entire staff, a simple statement is easier to understand and rally behind.

 

 
Chapter 4

Four principles for successful strategy

67% of strategic initiatives fail in execution. That disheartening statistic, from a 2016 survey, is an improvement over the 90% failure rate that the same poll found in 2002. Still, the idea that 2/3rds of corporate strategic efforts fail is shocking. Just imagine the time and money wasted. The reasons for the lack of success change over time but generally include the failure to gain support, hold one another accountable, communicate consistently, measure effectively, and reward success, among others.

Through our client strategy engagements, we have identified four principles that will help neutralize these common obstacles—actions that will ensure your strategy lives past the week it was created. They might seem obvious, but we rarely see them practiced. (Spoiler alert: they all have to do with people.)

 

1) Include everyone

This takes two forms. First, to establish an objective understanding of the position your organization holds in its ecosystem, take the temperature of all of the relationships that matter to your success. Certainly, these include clients, but they also should consist of employees, industry associations, suppliers, professional partners, and even, in some cases, competitors. There are a variety of ways to do this, both formal and informal, from one-on-one interviews and online surveys to focus groups and in-the-moment conversations. Whatever the method, the intention is to gather honest responses to questions about their relationships with your organization and their perceptions of your standing in the marketplace.

Second, when it comes to the strategy itself, invite people from throughout your organization, especially those whose voices are generally not heard, to participate. Naturally, this doesn’t mean everyone is involved in every meeting. However, it does mean they have an opportunity, in some way, to offer their perspective to the discussion about the future of the organization.

Taking the time to ask for and consider the opinions of everyone in your sphere of influence improves your likelihood of success because you are starting from a place of objectivity and ensuring a higher level of staff engagement by giving them a stake in the results.

Here is an example of what it looks like to include everyone in the design of your strategy.

 

2) Create a shared image of success

People fight for what they believe in, especially when they feel a sense of ownership. For strategic initiatives, a leader should help create those conditions for his or her team by giving them the opportunity to discuss and help establish the picture of success. Without this collaborative foothold within the organization, strategies are weaker and less likely to succeed.

Use these questions to get started:

What would need to be true about the organization in three years to call this initiative successful?
What evidence would we need to see to confirm we are making headway?
What conditions do we need to satisfy through the execution of this initiative?

Check out this article for further detail about the questions, their intent, and how to use them.

 

3) Identify a reason to care

People want to know that their hard work and personal contributions make a difference. You miss an essential opportunity to capture the imagination and ambitions of your team when there isn’t a compelling answer to the question Why does this strategy matter?. We call that answer a Strategy Purpose Statement

Phrases like to become the best, to be the biggest, and to be the most sought-after sound good on the surface, but they are not inspiring at a human level. What rarely gets discussed, let alone put into language, is why. Bring your team together and address these questions:

Does, this strategy matter to you? If so, why? If not, what’s missing that, if included, would make it more relevant?
If successful, what impact do you think it could have beyond the business outcomes already defined?
What difference could that impact make for you, our company, and our community?

This exploration will point to big ideas and inspiring ambitions. It may even cause you to rethink your image of success. Sharing the outcomes with every member of the organization responsible for executing the strategy can make all the difference between a team that is ready and willing and one that needs to be pushed at every step.

 

4) Commit to growth and development

Leaders have been taught to believe they always need to know the answers. However, when you are moving into the uncharted waters of a new strategy, what to do can’t be clear and what will happen is impossible to know. You have to evolve the way you express your leadership and be willing to develop leadership capacity you didn’t know you needed.

Simultaneously, you need to create space for your team members to explore their leadership styles and practice their capacity to lead through experience. Of course, if you want your team to swim in a different ocean, then, as their leader, you need to dive in first.

Leaders who are successful at creating this space:

Invite their team to contribute, take action, and share their experiences with new ideas
Provide their team with the resources (developmental and otherwise) they need to be successful
Demonstrate their commitment to the team by living their story
Own their mistakes and take their leadership development seriously
Successful strategy = Include everyone + Create a shared image of success + Identify a reason to care + Commit to growth and development #strategy

Want to share these four principles of successful strategy with your team?

Download the worksheet

 
Chapter 5

A fundamental framework for strategy

Creating breakthrough strategy for your organization requires you to change where you are thinking from.

Below are three dimensions to explore when beginning your strategy design. Two of them, what we imagine is possible and what we believe matters, will move your organization forward by pushing you beyond past-based strategy design, ensuring alignment and enthusiasm, and creating inspiring context for the work to come.

1) Begin with what you know is true

Our default is to make decisions about our organizations based on what we know to be true. And, why wouldn’t we? We like to be informed about the choices we make. The more evidence we can gather the more justified we can feel in our actions. By investing in research, relying on best practices, establishing benchmarks, etc., we satisfy our need to insert some sort of truth into what we are about to do.

Defining what you know to be true is vital for establishing a reference point, but taking action using only this dimension means you are basing your future on past events. Your strategy will be a reaction to something that has happened before. It may solve for some anomaly in the performance of the business or prevent something negative from happening again, but it won’t move you forward in a significant way.

When our decisions about future actions are based only on what we know to be true, we are limited to activities designed to deal with something that occurred in the past.

2. Imagine what is possible

When we include what is possible in strategy, we can design actions that both resolve things that happened in the past and cultivate conditions that will lead to the future we want. With both what is true and what is possible in hand, our actions can be informed by what we know and shaped by what we want to see in the future.

To maintain attention on what you see is possible takes time and determination. A vision is fragile—the minute you lose focus, it will collapse. This is why stepping away from your office to think about your future, no matter how infrequent, is one of the most valuable ways to spend your time.

If we include a picture or an agreement that dramatizes the future we want, we can create conditions that truly move us forward.
 

Wondering how these ideas could apply to your strategic planning?

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3. Uncover what you believe matters most

If we are going to ask anyone, including ourselves, to commit time and energy to keep a vision for the future alive, there needs to be a compelling reason to do so. Without it, initial excitement will fade, and day-to-day demands will take priority.

Ask yourselves: Why should anyone care about this future we have imagined? What will keep everyone engaged at the level that is needed to execute this large-scale change initiative? What matters so much to this company that we won’t let ourselves fail? (Hint: It isn’t more revenue.)

With this third dimension, you can now have more choice in the design of your strategy. You can 1) design actions that are in service to dealing with past issues, 2) create conditions that move you toward a future you would like to see for your business, and 3) offer something of gravity that will attract and hold attention to these efforts.

If we include an understanding of what matters most to us in our work, then the effort to realize a new future will be clearly worth making.

Watch our video about these three dimensions of organizational design.

Want to share this framework with your team?

Download the worksheet

 

 
Chapter 6

Keeping your strategy alive

Strategic plans often fail when daily realities replace the launch excitement and novelty of new work. That’s when focus is lost, doubts creep in, and energy wanes to the point where efforts stall.

Establishing sustained attention for strategic efforts is just like creating a new habit, which, according to James Clear’s noted book on forming new habits, takes 66 days. During this vulnerable time put careful and intentional effort toward both fanning the fire and gathering the fuel to keep it burning.

If it isn’t present, it doesn’t exist

Your strategic plan is new. And, like learning a new language, you need to use it regularly until you are thinking with it naturally rather than having to translate as you go.

  • Put your key strategic ideas at the front of your favorite notebook so you see them every time you open it
  • Write them on post-it-notes and put them where you will see them everyday, like your dashboard or mirror
  • Create reminder cards for everyone’s work area
 

Make it part of things you already do

The intention here is to demonstrate that thinking about your strategy should not be an every-once-in-a-while event. Instead, the ideas in it should immediately become a part of every day. It’s best if you make your strategic plan the headline, and relate what you are discussing to it.

  • Reference the strategic plan during regularly occurring business meetings, no matter how small
  • During business development meetings, especially go/no-go meetings, use your strategy as a filter for which projects to pursue
  • If your strategic plan includes elements like vision, values, and purpose, use them as part of how you hire, review, and develop your team

Set yourself up for some easy wins

Many strategic plans can be overwhelming when looked at in their entirety. However, if you break them down, you will find small actions you can take that will return significant results. A good place to start is with business activities that relate to the way others experience your organization. Try adjusting something simple that reflects your strategy, measure the results, and celebrate wins, no matter how small. Early on, these small examples of success matter a great deal to the team.

 

Make celebrating a habit

Why is it so difficult to celebrate progress when every leader knows that it’s essential to keeping their teams energized and engaged? Because it isn’t treated as a priority. If your strategic plan is vital to the future of your organization, then you must make celebrating progress non-negotiable. Whether it’s launching your new brand or changing the way you answer the phone, an employee personifying your values or business that came as a result of your new strategy, every win is worth recognizing and lifting up as progress toward your future.

Need help with your strategic planning?

Schedule a one-hour consulting session to discuss what we've learned about making strategy successful and explore how these ideas can apply to your organization. No fees, it's on us.

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