Why do I need a strategic plan? (and how to make one in under 10 minutes)

by Randy Murray on April 2, 2010

We’ll close out the Week of Why with an important question: Why do I need a strategic plan? Many business people treat a strategic plan as another thing to be checked off the list of things that you need to run a business. You spend long hours in meetings coming up with one, then put it in a drawer and forget it.

But a strategic plan can be much more than that. It can be a very useful tool for businesses. It can be something very simple that unites all of an organization’s participants to drive towards a clear goal. It can detail a vision of how to reach your goals.  And it can be a tool to measure how well your goals stand up against changing circumstances.

A good plan should:

  • State what the owner or owners want.
  • Change when the things that the owners want change.
  • Make it clear to everyone else what the owners want and how you plan on achieving that.
  • Change as the conditions, market, and the business changes.

Finally, people in your organization should be able to tell you what the owners want, how the organization is going to achieve it, and what they do as an individual to help achieve the goal.

And you can make such a plan on a paper napkin during a quick lunch. A business owner or group of stakeholders can put one together very easily if they just follow these steps.

  1. Ask: What do I want? Write it down. Don’t make any judgments. You want what you want. Write that at the top of your piece of paper.
  2. State where you are today. What’s the state of your business? What’s the competitive environment like? What are your major issues? Be very specific. When you’re done it should be a realistic picture of your business today. Write this at the bottom of your piece of paper.
  3. In the space in between, list the major things you will need to do to move your business from the state at the bottom, called “Current Reality,” to get to the goal at the top. Don’t worry about the “how do I do that?” details just yet, just list the major things you need to do.

That’s it. That’s your strategic plan. The approach is called “structural tension” and it’s very effective for business planning and personal planning as well. The plan you just wrote is also called an “ST chart.”  For more on structural tension see The Path of Least Resistance for Managers by Robert Fritz and Peter Senge.

And there are two rules that go along with it:

  1. No one gets to question what the owner wants.
  2. The owner can change what they want at any time.

When you want to move from strategic planning to tactical implementation, select one of the steps between your goal and current reality, take another piece of paper, and do another ST chart making this step the goal, write a current reality for this specific goal, and start making detailed steps to get the job done.

Here’s a simple one:

Goal: Launch the Spend Nothing Game as a successful web site and application.

Standards Of Measure:

  • 100,000 registered users within 6 months of launch
  • Sponsorships (not ads) sustain the effort
  • Popular press recognizes SNG as the “anti-foursquare” and a contributor to popularizing frugal, fun living.


5. Public launch of phase 1

4. Create larger interest and awareness in SNG – solicit participation, ideas, and contributions.

3. Develop phase 1 plan

2. Assemble team: programming, graphic design, product management

1. Determine if this is going to be a hobby or a revenue-generating venture. If venture, then how will it be funded initially?

Current Reality: I’m writing about the Spend Nothing Game, but have not yet assembled the team or resources to put together an effective site, iPhone application, and funding plan. I have reserved the spendnothinggame.com domain and pointed it at FTTT. I’ve re-implemented the site at new host and am using the Thesis theme to allow me to customize the site – including a Spend Nothing Game tab.

It’s that simple. And by having a plan like this AND sharing it with all of your team, you eliminate the potential for confusion in your employees and teammates and empower everyone to align their efforts with your goals and give you a much greater chance of actually achieving them. And you’ll note the steps are reverse numbered. That’s because you start at the bottom and as you complete a step, you get closer to your goal. In fact, your goal PULLS you towards it. That’s the tension part of Structural Tension.

That’s the big reason: strategic plans are to help you be clear about what you want, let others know, and give you a framework to plan in detail. The plan itself doesn’t have to be highly detailed – that level of planning can grow out of this high-level piece. But if you use this approach AND keep it visibly in front of you, updated, fresh, living, then you’ll have a much better chance of achieving what you set out to accomplish.

For more on structural tension and strategic planning, give my friends at Ralston Consulting a call. I’d also be happy to talk with you about my experiences using this approach in business and personally.

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