Mention strategic planning and you’ll get lots of words back. It is one of those business concepts with the potential to be understood or misunderstood in a dozen different ways. One person’s objectives are someone else’s goals. Another person’s key initiatives means strategies to others.

Where most agreement exists are the planning process phases: planning to plan (getting started), in-the-room decision making, communicating the plan to others, and finally, implementing it.

Planning to plan
When companies attempt to “strategically plan”, they run the gamut from simplicity to rigorous complexity. Among the many questions they need to answer include: What approach to take? Hire a consultant or do it internally? What’s the time horizon? What information if any is needed? Who should be involved, and how? What’s the target?

Tom Balling, president of Seacrest Services, a Florida-based property management company, reduced the complexity and got started this way.

“First, I am not a strategic planning expert and thought that in order to fully participate I didn’t think that I should lead the effort,” he says. “In addition, I wanted to remain unbiased and let our management team drive the process. To meet all of those needs, I hired a consultant who determined the overall process, the information necessary to be researched beforehand, and led the specific ‘in the room steps’ which moved us to a strategic plan.”

David Schmidt, CEO of California- based Scan Health Plans, got started in another way. He asked executives to develop three different position papers which would serve as the basis of their external analysis. These, in turn, became vital inputs into the planning process.

“I am a firm believer of well-thought-out pre-work,” Schmidt says. “It is crucial that up-front work is done to ensure that common understanding among participants leads to well informed decision making. Without that understanding people will be deciding the company’s future with only a fraction of what they need. And that’s risky business.”

Another key planning-to-plan component is deciding who should be developing the plan. Will the plan be developed by senior executives in a top down fashion, or will it be more of a grass roots campaign?

Also, get clear on who makes decisions. If it is the bosses’ call, staff simply provide input. On the other hand, experience suggests that consensually determined strategic plans gain commitment from key stakeholders right from the start and collect less dust.

In-the-room decision-making
Once the planning-to-plan phase is completed, determining the steps to turn meaningful information into action has its own hurdles. “In-the-room steps” can either be provocative or self-limiting. They are provocative when thoughtful questions are posed: What are the implications? What would happen if we did/didn’t? Can we afford to/not to?

They become stale or frustrating when questions are asked and flip charts are filled — yet sadly don’t become building blocks for future decisions. Spending valuable hours collectively wordsmithing vague concepts about mission and vision vs. agreeing on them in principle and editing later can turn the most enthusiastic team into eye rolling adolescents.

Another concept is deciding what the plan should entail and how will it be achieved. Often, strategic plans look only at the external environment. Part of an effective plan needs to be based on perpetuating and reinforcing internal strengths and turning around its weaknesses.

Ronnie Baker, one of the principals of Kansas City-based BG Service Solutions, can’t emphasize that enough.

“When we do our planning, we look at both our strengths and weaknesses,” he says. “After identifying the weaknesses we ask if they are critical to our success. If they are, our responses become part of the company’s strategic plan.”

In order to achieve the necessary honesty while overcoming departmental protection or potential defensiveness regarding the internal examination, it is advisable to agree on ground rules to drive the process. Typical ground rules include being open and candid, responding non-defensively, managing tangential discussions, clarifying the decision process, considering oneself a senior company officer vs. representing specific functional areas. These ground rules, albeit not foolproof, do provide some parameters as well as expectations for collective decision making and avoiding departmental self-protectiveness.

Collective decision making poses its own challenges. First, people often confuse consensus with unanimity. Unanimity is everyone thinking similarly and wanting the exact same decision—an unlikely outcome. Consensus is when everyone is in full support of the final decision even if it wasn’t their first choice. Achieving consensus is a key component in group decision making, yet moves beyond “group think.”

The road to consensus winds through three factors. First, people must have an opportunity to influence others and be heard. Second, people have to be willing to fully listen and understand alternative perspectives. And last, people have to be willing to “go along” with the prevailing sentiment if they feel that they have been listened to, and that their ideas have been fully considered.

Communicating the plan
People are naturally curious, especially when it affects them. But, not everyone understands why there should even be a plan. Let these people know that strategic planning assists people to know where the company is headed; provides context for many of the day-to day-operational issues; facilitates decision making; creates initiatives with accountabilities and timelines, giving all people a sense of progress, ownership and direction; and determines budget focus.

Where planning is the expected norm, people should be told the primary factors behind the plan and their specific role in it as well as other more salient features.

Implementing the plan
There’s an old managerial adage, “Whatever gets followed up on gets done.” Plans where little follow-up can be expected languish on people’s desks and die slow, agonizing deaths. Yet for organizations that pride themselves on setting ideas in motion and moving them to successful completion, strategic planning is the “grandfather” of opportunities.

Vigilance is required; formal plan-updating mechanisms are vital. Informal check-ins satisfy a moment’s curiosity, yet provide little structure or accountability for delivering on plan components.

Strategic planning is clearly a critical organizational component with the potential to be orchestrated in many ways. Without a thoughtful approach to planning to plan, decision making mechanics, consistent communication and implementation requirements, all the planning won’t get you to the promised land.

“Unless you know where you are headed and how to get there, you could wind up anywhere,” says Seacrest’s Balling. “Our plan provided a roadmap to a specific destination. You can’t run a business without one.”

Dr. Ron Cohn is the owner of Ralston Consulting Group, Salt Lake City. He can be reached at 801-328-1820.

Book Review

Wise Counsel

by Stacie H. Whitacre, Editor

Five Wisdoms For Entrepreneur Survival: Practical Experience & Biblical Perspective by Todd Hopkins (JSM Publishing, 2003, $10.00 Paperback)

The majority of business startups fail, and cleaning companies are no exception. Many books have been written about business survival, but Five Wisdoms comes specifically from the cleaning-contractors perspective. Todd Hopkins, founder and president of Office Pride Commercial Cleaning Services in Franklin, Ind., adds another dimension to this often enlightening read — his solid business advice and personal anecdotes come peppered with Biblical references.

Readers will find familiarity and encouragement in the first two-thirds of the book, in which Hopkins chronicles his journey, from despair to success. He uses five nuggets of advice (the “Wisdoms” of the title), offered by his mentor Richard Sickels, as a jumping-off point for his own recommendations.

In later chapters, Hopkins draws more heavily on Biblical references, as well as his own experience in finding his faith. His writing is clear and conversational, and never heavy-handed, but some readers uncomfortable with religious discussion might find these sections difficult.

Overall, though, the advice is solid, easy to understand and quite universal — ethics and respect are vital. Regardless of one’s beliefs, readers should be able to find encouragement and inspiration from this book.

Todd Hopkins will be speaking at the ISSA/Interclean show in New Orleans on Nov. 17. His presentation, titled “Surviving As An Entrepreneur In The Contract Cleaning Industry,” is part of the Facility Service Provider Track sponsored by Contracting Profits.