Why Your Business (or any Organization) Needs a Strategic Plan

Far too often, we boil leadership down to bite a sized quotable. Over every social media platform, you see brilliant quotes from the leading influencers of the moment or of the great leaders of the past.  I have shared many quotes that speak to me and will most likely continue to do so in the hope that they will inspire others to action.  After all, that is what a leader does, inspires action.  But leadership is far more complicated than a great one-liner from Marcus Aurelius or John Maxwell.  Leading is hard.  There is endless criticism (from inside and outside of your organization), tremendous pressure to perform, and endless amounts of problems to solve.

That is why it is vital to have a plan for your organization.  A solid strategic plan will help reduce the pressure from you and the leaders of your organization. So how does a strategic plan help in this way?  First, when I work with a business or organization, we establish its reason for existing.  The leadership team must determine the reason the organization exists and ensure it has real implications for how they will make decisions moving forward.  Then we work on values.  Not just generic values that we wish to work towards, but a clear set of current values that describe “who” the organization really is.  This work is vital to ensure the organization knows who it is and why it does what it does. Doing these steps and a few other pieces will establish the initial foundation for the essential strategic work.

Next, we can work on differentiating the organization.  Or to put more plainly, identifying the few strategic guidelines that the organization will use to make decisions. For example, maybe the team determines that it has a “flat” and agile administrative process that their customers appreciate and regularly compliment.  The leadership team would then need to ensure that future decisions should protect this “flat” organizational structure at significant costs!  Any processes that the organization implements should be tailored to fit its flat and agile administrative process.  Doing so will keep the unique advantage.  But if the team did not identify this as a strategic advantage, they may inadvertently lose an essential aspect of what makes their business great. Lastly, we work on organizational priorities and organizational roles.

Once you have worked through this process, you will be able to communicate your vision to your people.  The ability to increase communication and bring your team together and get them on the same page is immeasurable.  Everyone will know what the priorities are, everyone will know what the leadership team is using to base their decisions on, and it will align the entire organization. 

A solid strategic plan will make implementing objective tracking systems much easier.  Anything from OKRs (Objectives & Key Results) to a Balanced Scorecard are great ways to keep track of who is working on what and how you are going to achieve your key objectives. 

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Work-Life Balance? Or Work-Work Balance…

Work-life balance is a tricky subject. Many believe that the right balance between work and your personal life is about 50 hours of work a week. I’ve heard this number several times in my career and through other conversations. So, if we break down 50 hours a week, you end up with about 10 hours a day if you take the weekend off. This seems reasonable, especially if you get paid for the extra 10 hours. A big problem is when you are paid salary and once you hit 40 hours, you’re mostly working for free. There are many arguments for and against this. For example, many salary workers are given other benefits and perks to make up for the extra hours they won’t get traditional overtime pay. Or time over 40 hours is given back to them in the form of additional paid vacation. No right or wrong combination will make everyone happy, which is the key to this article.
There is no right or wrong combination of work-life balance. Everyone is different; everyone has different circumstances, everyone has different beliefs and different needs. What works for you will most likely not work for others. This is why it is imperative that you figure out what works for you and then help your people work out what works for them. Many run into problems when their work-life balance works for them but not their spouse, kids, or other obligations. One thing to remember is you will probably do what you find most important. And sometimes it is to sacrifice early to make things better later on. This can be dangerous, because you may never be able to escape that frame of mind.
Organizational managers or the organizational leadership needs to understand how work-life balance works for their employees. There is a belief that employees display dedication and commitment in the amount of time they spend at work. That those employees that get to work at nine to five are not as committed as the employees that work from six to six. Managers need to articulate how much time they expect employees to stay at work. They also need to know that there is much more to life than work. And unless the employee is in love with what they do, they don’t want to spend all their time in the office. It’s more important than ever to know your people!

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Don’t Be Busy, Be Effective!

I hear so many people talk about how busy they are.  It is constant.  Each new task, each new problem, the same response every time, “I’m too busy to add more to my plate!” We’ve all heard it and might be true in some cases, but other times its just hyperbole.  It seems like the cool thing to say as a manager, that you are the busiest and have no time for anything else.  That you are overworked and many other descriptions of the same thing.

The problem is being busy is a bad thing.  How can you or your organization be agile and be able to adjust to meet demand if you are so busy?  A great quote I read once is “You can’t be too busy mopping the floor, to shut off the faucet.”  So being busy is just an exercise in priorities.  Sometimes you won’t have the option of what to do or which priorities you have, but you can always discuss it.  When you are in a position to determine your priorities, it is all about doing what is important for the organization to be successful.

So, how does an organization do this?  There need to be deliberate discussions about what is and what is not a priority.  Hopefully, the items determined to be a priority align with the organizational goals.  If they do not align, then this is a good indicator you have either the wrong goals or the wrong priorities.

Achieving a balance is needed because cleaning the bathroom might not be an organizational priority that will align with an organizational goal, if it is not done regularly, nasty things will happen. This is where the problems begin because at some point everything will become a priority.  What you end up with is managers not being able to distinguish priorities for their work.

Look at the typical tasks you are required to complete and build priority groups.  Doing so will help the members of the organization responsible for creating a suspense for these tasks a way to determine how long to give the group to respond.  You might create five priority groups that your organization can assign tasks to, then when something is a low priority, people won’t ask for a same-day turnaround.

Take, for example, a low priority task like providing the IT department the type of paper you use.  This job would easily fall in the lowest priority category.  That category would come with a minimum two weeks completion time, meaning you have two weeks to respond.  If the priority needed to be bumped up, clear and compelling justification would need to be provided.  Once your organization knows how to prioritize, it will be easy to find the balance that is “just right.”

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Your Leader’s Focus is All Wrong!

If you work in an organization that has people in it, your focus as a leader should be on the people first. Not to make them happy, but to do what is right. To develop your people, to train them, to make choices they may not like, but that are for their benefit in the long run. As long as the priority is the people, you will have a great chance of success. The most difficult part, it seems, is what to focus on after the people. This in not to say that even focusing on people is as simple as saying you focus on people. Within that, many philosophies explore this topic in detail. Perhaps you subscribe to Jack Welch’s belief that you concentrate on the top 20% and fire the bottom 10%. Or maybe you believe you need only focus on the bottom 20% in the hopes you can make them great. Either way, it’s best to focus on people first.

Outside of the people of your organization, what is the best area to place your focus? In the military, many ranking individuals have a hard time focusing on the core functions of the organization and instead focus on things that are sometimes, barely even relevant. Managers elevate in importance, dentist appointments, medical readiness, and physical fitness scores because they are easy to track. The problem with this is most of their organization’s managers, and leaders place much needed time and energy on these tasks instead of where they should be focused. Those tasks should align with the core function of the organization. If you are in the supply business, then how your people understand supply-chain, bench-stock levels and many other aspects to supply are incredibly more important than if your average fitness score moves from 84 to 89.

Take a look what your managers are doing and how they spend their time. Two questions you should always ask are: How well does this organization perform its core mission? And how can you prove it? If you turn to your Quality Assurance (QA) function for these stats, you are missing too much data to be very effective. The QA team can be great for identifying problem errors, but should not be sole measuring stick for the organization’s performance.

Don’t be fooled into only asking the above questions once; they will need to be constantly reviewed. Also, be prepared to hear how the organization is not performing as well as you may expect. We have a tendency to think we are doing better than we really are.

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