It’s not rocket science to know that you need a good strategy, and then a good plan to execute that strategy in order to make your company, organization, agency or co-op successful. The problem with most strategic planning efforts is that too much stock is put into the process itself versus the quality of the information that's being fed into it and the analysis and application of that information into the decisions being made to guide the future of the organization.
So, if strategy is so important, why do we get it so wrong so often?
Study after study indicates that less than 10% of companies are successful at implementing their strategic plans. The statistics for small businesses are even more dismal – 50% percent don’t make it past 5 years and 70% go under in less than 10 years. Even worse is the fact that these statistics have changed little in the last 15-20 years. I have some theories, and many relate to myths and misperceptions about what strategy really is and what it takes to design a strategic framework that will move and flex as your organization grows and expands.
Key Misunderstandings about Strategic Planning
First strategic planning is not strategy. Strategic planning is just a process that is intended to lead you down a path that supports good strategy design. Like most, it can be highly efficient invaluable and informative, or it can be the antithesis of all those things resulting and a lot of wasted time energy, and money.
The word strategy itself simply means to make a plan, so it can be used in various ways and to describe various activities within the larger planning effort. You can have a broad, five-year organizational strategy and you can also have tactical strategies for human resource development, IT infrastructure design, risk management and mitigation, and any other numerous functions that need a focused approach. It is important to be clear on the context around how the word the being used.
Recognize that strategic planning happens at various levels. It begins with understanding vision and mission and identifying long-term priorities and targets that support mission delivery, growth, and perpetuation of the organization-those things that really explain the “why”. However, to make the plan a reality, we must also have the more tactical short-term goals defined that make up the “how”.
Since we are talking about the “how” of strategy, let’s note here that strategic planning and operational execution are not the same thing. As indicated above we have to define high-level strategic priorities and targets, but we cannot get there without specifically defining the tactical goals, milestones, and sub-targets that will lead us step-by-step towards achievement of the overarching strategy.
Strategic planning is as much art as it is a science to get it done right. If you think you could spend half a day rehashing a 3-year-old plan and come up with something good, you are mistaken. If you believe that the top three or four people in your large organization have all the information they need to build and design a comprehensive strategy, again you are mistaken. Strategic planning is much more than a process. At the very heart of it, it requires deep analysis of your internal capabilities as well as external drivers market an industry.
Finally, strategic planning requires a combination of operational expertise (your SMEs) as well as strategic experience (your leadership) and ideally, someone to guide you through the steps and challenge assumptions made by your team that may or may not be true. If you don’t have independent expertise in your organization to support this endeavor – and most don’t – then you need to find one. Many look for a planning facilitator, but if you are trying to solve critical strategic issues, consider instead a Master Strategist to guide your team.
What is a Master Strategist?
A master strategist is someone who has deep expertise in not only facilitating the strategy review and development process, but supporting in-depth analysis of organizational performance, capabilities, market drivers, and industry change. They have the underlying skills and expertise to see your organization holistically and are adept at ferreting out critical information and connections that are hard for those inside the organization to see. This holistic view reveals blind spots and missed opportunities that can impede successful implementation of the strategic decisions made. Depending on your need, a Master Strategist can help you accomplish the following:
Provide you with a new perspective on how well your Vision, Mission, and Strategy fit together and if it is understood and resonates with those it is meant to speak to.
Help determine if your team is aligned when it comes to strategic priorities, risk appetite, and performance objectives, and if not, how to get there.
Identify areas where operational performance is misaligned with strategic priorities, finding the root cause, and bringing these blind spots to light so they can be addressed.
Support a robust assessment of industry and market drivers that are specific, relevant, and impactful to your business’s continued growth and evolution.
Create a mechanism for prioritizing your time, energy, and resources on those things that are most critical for executing your strategic plan.
Assist with the creation of meaningful performance and risk indicators that will help you ensure that your plan is staying on track.
What to Look for When Engaging a Master Strategist
The value of bringing in an outside master strategist is, quite frankly, that they have no dog in the fight. They are not biased by internal politics, relationships, or entrenched thought patterns, and because they are focused on the strategy design process, they leverage versus compete with the operational expertise of your team. There are several things to consider when engaging someone to support your team through this critical process. If you are serious about getting the highest quality services and want the best of the best in practitioners, then a master strategist is who you should be looking for.
First and foremost, look for broad underlying expertise to support a holistic understanding of your entire organization – not just one area. You want someone who is able to connect the dots between seemingly unrelated things to help you understand how internal and external drivers are affecting your performance and bottom line.
Second, be cautious of hiring someone just because they come from your industry. You need someone who understands how to get you through the planning and decision process – not to second guess the operational expertise of your own team.
Third, look for a natural problem-solver, a person who is curious about your business, and is an engaged, active listener with excellent communication skills. They must be able to not only quickly grasp your issues and concerns but connect with even the most difficult members of your team.
Finally, look for proof in the pudding. Review testimonials, look at the quality of their project experience, and reach out to other clients who’ve had experience with the expert you want to engage.
Developing a solid strategy to guide your organization to success takes time, energy, and expertise. It is a significant investment whether you do it well or not, so it makes sense to give your efforts the best chance of success by taking a holistic approach. A Master Strategist has the expertise to design a process that fits your organization, your team and addresses the strategic issues you’re facing – much more than just facilitating a discussion about SWOT that goes nowhere. There are many ways to produce high-quality strategic planning engagements, so take the time to find someone who is a good fit, it will be worth the investment!
At Black Fox Strategy, we love complex and complicated. We thrive on challenging assignments and our “sweet spot” is working with organizations that are navigating significant organizational transition. We have deep expertise in strategy, risk, and resilience programming, and are performance alignment and gap assessment specialists.
Erin Sedor, founder of Black Fox Strategy and Master Strategist, holds an MBA in Operational Risk, Bachelor of Arts degrees in both Organizational Management and Finance, an undergraduate certification in Paralegal Studies, as well as numerous professional certifications in the fields of strategy, risk, and resilience. Erin has nearly 30 years of experience having served as a C-level VP of Risk and Strategy, Board Director and Chair, and now Executive Consultant. Her client portfolio includes non-profits, Alaska Native and Tribal organizations, Colleges and Universities, Municipal Boroughs, and Federal Department of Defense and Department of Energy prime contractors.