Differentiating Your Strategic Plan From A Business Plan

I’ve recently been following and participating in a discussion group on LinkedIn regarding the importance of having a business plan. The discussion, like most on social networking sites, had an eclectic mix of perspectives. There were the young techies in the discussion flouting their philosophy of “no planning necessary, just do it”. I find it fascinating how consistent this segment is in thinking if you can write code and are web savvy you don’t need any type of planning to succeed.

It is a great example of we don’t know what we don’t know, and how we have a natural tendency to gravitate to our comfort zone. Worshipping at the alter of technology appears to be a blinding activity for these naive entrepreneurs, and the competitive advantage one technology has over another is entering a point of diminishing returns. At the end of the day, the differentiation going forward are strategic. We’re long past the point of build a better mouse trap and customers will beat a path to your door.

As I continued to read the discussion, I realized there’s a fair amount of misunderstanding regarding the difference between writing a business plan and creating a strategic plan. Business plans tend to be two dimensional. People follow a template, fill in the blanks, and when they’re done, it goes on the shelf until next year. Strategic plans are three dimensions, they are living documents that provide the structure and guidance that enables nimble thinking and rapid action.

In strategic planning, the questions we ask of ourselves are often more important than the answers we discover along the way. Strategic planning is about a process; of developing the discipline of strategic thinking.

Business planning is about writing a document. It lacks life, passion, and the energy necessary to attract, engage, and excite your prospects, customers, constituents, and the community.

Strategic planning is a form of creative visualization. It empowers your vision with actionable steps that move you forward towards the manifestation of your goals. It also helps cultivate presence in your organization. It pulls peoples’ attention into the present moment, focusing your organizational energy on activities that build value and momentum with your prospects and customers.

Strategic planning as a form of creative visualization that also enables presence may raise the question, “How are you in the moment when you are looking one, three, or five years ahead?”  It is a logical question. Let me use an analogy to help explain this:

Let’s envision a business, just for a moment, as a tribe of hunters and gatherers living ten thousand years ago.  As the leaders of the tribe, we are highly aware of our environment. As time passes, we begin to observe a change in the climate; with each passing year, it is getting colder much earlier in the year and staying cold much longer into the spring.

We observe the birds and other animals beginning to migrate south much earlier than what we have historically observed and notice they are also returning later in the spring. From our observations, from our awareness, we develop a Vision that these elongated winters may be less severe in the South. It stands to reason that if the migrating animals are leaving earlier and staying longer food supplies are most likely more abundant as well.

We establish a Goal of migrating south to ensure the tribe will continue to prosper. In order to do so, we must cross a large mountain range before the early autumn snows begin and block the high passes. We now have an Objective that is critical to the success of achieving our Goal; we must clear the high passes before the snow flies or we could become stranded and perish.

There are many passes we can choose from, some representing a more arduous climb, but are more direct, and others that offer a gentle slope, yet will take longer. We must now decide upon our Strategies. The amount of risk we are willing to incur and how we intend to balance the risk of each approach with the risk of failing to reach the passes before the snows begin.

Our Strategies reflect the constraints we have identified through a thorough Self-Assessment.  We have examined our strengths and weaknesses. How many children and elders must survive this trek? Do we have ample supplies for the journey? Who are our harbingers for this journey that can blaze the trail for the remainder of the tribe?

Have we carefully evaluated the landscape and challenged our assumptions of the risks involved? What is the Competitive Landscape; are there hostile tribes living along the way that may wish us harm? Might there be opportunities to partner with other tribes? Have we properly scouted our options and truly know what we face? Have we challenged our assumptions and appreciate the fact we still don’t know what we don’t know?

At the end of all this discussion and evaluation we realise that the only way we can manifest our Vision (abundance for the tribe) and achieve our Goal (to be in the South), and to secure our Objective (navigate the mountain passes before the autumn snow), is to walk south every day one step at a time, regardless of the Strategic path we have chosen. Our Tactics…for each of us, once the decision has been made to take the journey, must simply focus on taking one step at a time at the moment.

Much like the tribal elders in this analogy, business leaders have the responsibility of formulating a clear and concise vision, communicate it effectively so that others can share in it, and to discern the best path for the organization to follow through the mature evaluation of risks and rewards.  In doing so, we can, in combination with a healthy, vibrant, and trusting culture, enable associates to concentrate on each step they are taking at the moment, to be truly present, to execute on the plan now and make it a reality for us all.

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