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Nothing strikes at the heart of frustrations carried by many Product Management leaders like the topic of strategic planning.  I would wager that even just reading that first sentence caught your attention and brings certain emotions to the surface … for good, or for bad.  So especially at this time of year, reflecting on some insights with respect to the topic can be helpful.

No great strategy was born without careful thought. That’s why the process of planning a strategy itself is an important vehicle for setting priorities, making investment decisions, and laying out growth plans. But for many companies, the activity has devolved into either an over-explained budget or just bad amateur theater – lots of costumes in the form of analysis, charts, and presentations – but with very little meaningful substance that can be translated into action. As a result, many strategic plans end up as shelf decorations or hard-to-find files in crowded hard drives.

This is the opening for an article title Four Tips for Better Strategic Planning. Overall, it is a very well written article about breaking bad habits associated with this process. Let me share some thoughts based upon my experiences during the 3 or 5 year planning cycles and see how many folks this resonates with. In general, it can be summed up with three distinct phases:

  • Stage 1 – Well Intentioned Beginnings – being strategic, being forward looking is an ideal that most companies strive for. And the beginning of the planning cycle can be a time of excitement, a time of anticipation for new ideas.
  • Stage 2 – Chaotic Scrambling – all too often, these early ideals fade away with the doldrums of getting caught up in the short-term firefights.
  • Stage 3 – Budgetary Conforming – by the time the rubber must hit the road, ideals are out the window, forecasts have been scrutinized and inevitably slashed, and any strategic thinking has to fit within the confines of hitting the numbers.

Sound familiar? Granted this is not the rule with every company, but I would wager that almost everyone who reads this has experienced it at some point. As the article rightly points out, “the strategic planning process is an important part of most organizations’ operating rhythm. The leadership challenge, however, is to make sure that it’s more than just a corporate exercise.” Here are a few hints that have helped me [as well as how they relate back to the article]:

  • Relative to Stage 1 – just as competitive intelligence should have both proactive and reactive elements, so too should strategic thinking. Don’t limit the ideals to the planning cycles that come once a year. [Escape from template tyranny by continually revitalizing your views].
  • Relative to Stage 2 – most leaders are not intentional about carving time out for themselves, or their teams, to focus on the longer-term strategy. Schedule regular meetings on the calendar to get out of the mire of the day to day and think bigger. And most of all, covet this time because distractions will always arise. [Ask the provocative questions].
  • Relative to Stage 3 – the pockets are never deep and endless, and the short-term urgent will always take precedent over the long-term critical. But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think creatively. I have worked with some brilliant engineers who love to tinker in their spare time. [Creatively find the experiments that let you test your assumptions].

Would love to hear your thoughts on the topic.