Strategic Planning: Establishing a "Baseline"

We've written elsewhere in THE BLOG about the importance of creating the right mindset among the executive participants of any strategic planning effort before you just plunge in. But if you're planning to lead or facilitate such a process, what about what you need to know and feel confident about before getting started?

Of course, if you're a part of the organization, you already have some familiarity with the issues and the players - though being a subordinate to the executives you're going to "lead" presents you with its own special challenges.

But in our line of work as management consultants, we're brought in from the outside and, at the outset, may have very little knowledge of a company's situation or its leaders. As a result, we never launch into a strategic planning engagement without insisting on the opportunity, as we put it, to "establish a baseline" from which to operate. And we're confident, regardless of your situation, our approach can be of help to you too.

Of course, general information about companies and, sometimes, even their key executives is publicly available. But, for us, this is only a start. To be effective in leading executives through a strategic planning process, you need the "inside scoop." You need to know what the real issues are, many of which would never be made available publicly. You also need to get a no-holds-barred sense of how your executive planners feel about these issues, each other and the future of the company.

The Executive Interview Process
We do this through what we call the Executive Interview Process, and we wouldn't think of beginning a strategic planning engagement without it. If you're asking yourself how we get executives to say what they really think, the answer is simple: our interviews are always conducted one-on-one and are completely confidential. We may use some of the data we gather at various stages in the planning process, but we always aggregate it thematically to show the "weight" of opinion among executives, without ever revealing any individual's input or opinion.

What follows here, then, is a concise overview of the kinds of questions we ask in our Executive Interviews and the rationale for asking them.

Why This? Why Now?
One of the first insights we like to get is the degree to which planners are "invested" in the process they're about to undertake. Is it being "mandated" from on high, and are they just "going through the motions," or are they enthused about planning for the future and aware of just how important it can be, when approached conscientiously? We get at this by simply asking each executive: "As you see it, what's the impetus for this strategic planning effort?" And, "How would you rate its prospects for success."

The "State of the Company"
We also want to know how they see their company's current situation and how they feel about it. So we ask, "If you were going to give a speech that would be analogous to the President's State of the Union address, how would you characterize the State of the Company right now in a few words or phrases?" Additionally, we ask questions such as: "How would you characterize the company's direction?" And "How do you feel about the direction in which the company's headed right now?"

Taken together, the answers to these questions tell us a good deal about the frame of mind in which executives will be embarking on the planning process. Are they up? Are they down? Do they fully recognize the opportunity that effective planning can provide? Or are they disgruntled and resigned, perhaps as a result of bad previous experiences, about "having to go through this again."

Key Strategic Elements
Elsewhere in THE BLOG we've defined the framework elements and nomenclature we favor in our strategic planning work. And our Executive Interview process gets into those at this point. We ask executives: "What is the Mission of your company?" "What is the Vision for the future?" "What are the Core Values that serve as a basis for your company's operating philosophy?" "What do you see as your company's major Strengths and Weaknesses?" "What would you define as the major Threats or Opportunities facing the company at this point in time?"

These questions can be extremely revealing. For example, getting a blank stare to the question about Vision gives you a strong indication that little thought has been given to defining a strategic future. An inability to define core values certainly doesn't suggest a company that has thought a lot about them. Responses such as these tell you that your planning effort is likely to be more time-consuming and challenging, since you're going to have to spend time helping your executives to create the solid strategic foundation they currently don't have. On the other hand, ready, concrete answers to these questions tells you that this is a company that is already aligned on its key operating principles and that you're likely to be able to build on these effectively and expeditiously with your executive planners.

Planning Team Insights
You might not think of this last batch of questions, but they're incredibly important to you as the facilitator of a planning process since they can go a long way toward providing you with a "preview of coming attractions," so to speak. Consider this: you're going to be spending a good many pretty intense hours closeted with this group of high-powered players, hammering out issues that are usually of vital importance to them. This is likely to be a pretty intense experience. Given that, it might be nice to get a sense of how they're likely to behave. And, in this case, the best way to get a window into that is to ask them a few questions about how they typically conduct themselves.

So we ask questions like "How much teamwork exists in this group?" "How clear are roles and responsibilities?" "How would you describe the group's decision-making process?" "How high is the trust level in this group?" And, "If I walked into one of your regularly-scheduled executive meetings, how would you describe the group dynamic I would be likely to experience?"

Forewarned is Forearmed
The point here is the more insight you have into the issues at play in the company and the dynamics at play within the executive planning team, the more you can anticipate how this strategic planning exercise is likely to play out. And that means you can plan for it more effectively.

And as any good planner knows, nothing increases your chances of success in a strategic planning process more than effectively "planning to plan." Establishing a sound baseline via an effective Executive Interview process will allow you to do just that - before you begin your strategic planning process. Good luck!

Ray Gagnon is Principal of Gagnon Associates, a management consulting firm with a long-standing practice in Strategic Planning, GE Work-Out and Business Process Improvement, located in Metro-West Boston, Massachusetts, USA