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Are your strategic planning process steps this insanely reliable?

by | Feb 17, 2017 | strategy

Have you ever wondered why so few projects and initiatives are successfully completed or are even launched?  Large, complex projects and engagements have an especially low chance of succeeding. In fact, as many as 70% of strategic plans fail!

In many instances, this happens because leaders are not following the strategic planning process steps that greatly increase the chances of success.

You may assume that because projects and companies are complex that any planning effort is complex as well.  Or maybe you assume that you don’t have sufficient experiences, skills or knowledge of strategic planning techniques to match the complexity of the situation you need to manage or lead.

If that’s where you stand on the subject of strategic planning, now is the time to change your thinking!

As a current or future leader, you need to be an effective strategic planner. However, in order to initiate and lead a strategic planning process, you must first build a solid knowledge base that supports your strategic plan from the beginning.


I want to share with you the strategic planning process steps you can follow in any situation- simple or complex– along with recommendations for the structure of your plan. By focusing on these two areas- the steps and structure- of a strategic plan, you will set yourself up for far more successes than failures.

Here are the results of a 2006 online study conducted by The McKinsey Quarterly. 

796 participants from a worldwide panel of executives were asked the following question:

How would you describe the role that the strategic planning process plays in developing your company’s strategy?

Clearly, strategic planning is vital to the core operations of any company. In this survey, 58% believe is it very or extremely significant.

  • Not at all significant 3% 3%
  • Slightly significant 10% 10%
  • Somewhat significant 29% 29%
  • Very significant 44% 44%
  • Extremely significant 14% 14%

Source: July/Aug 2006 McKinsey Quarterly survey of business executives

Table of Contents

Here’s how, in this article, I will break down for you the complex process of strategic planning into clear, manageable actions that when combined can effectively serve as a strategic planning template for you:



  16 Common (and detrimental!) misconceptions  about the strategic planning process

1a. While strategic planning is a core leadership responsibility, most leaders do not strategically plan because they do not overcome these misconceptions. An effective strategic planner is an effective leader.

2. Strategic planning definition and associated activities

2a.Leaders must engage in 4 activities that are foundational to any strategic plan. The 4 activities I discuss provide understanding, construction, and effectiveness.

3. Strategic planning process steps  (including benefits and examples of each step)

3a. There are 3 major steps of every strategic plan. You can use these steps in all strategic planning efforts. In addition, you can add sub-steps to group like projects together.

4. Strategic planning format (a great but poorly structured plan will be difficult to execute)

4a. The structure of your strategic plan is both a communication tool and a selling tool.

Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction.

John F. Kennedy

American Politician, 35th President of the United States

Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.

Warren Bennis

American author, scholar, pioneer of the field of Leadership Studies

Strategic planning IS a vital way in which vision turns into execution, and execution turns into results.

Strategic planning ISN’T the creation of a “how-to” document for each project that exists within the strategic plan.

Most of all, it IS an effective framework for visualizing your entire strategic planning effort.

Strategic planning process steps: 6 misconceptions


Have you ever looked back at a project and wondered:


“Did we accomplish our goal? or worse..


“Why didn’t we accomplish our goal?”

What about as leader of a team:  

Have you looked back over a year or longer and asked yourself any of these questions:


Did we really become better at our job?


Did we add more value?


Did we increase production, reduce costs, or add sales accounts?


Sadly, the answers to these questions are often disappointing.

 At many levels, it is difficult to achieve goals because of a fundamental lack of strategic planning.  I fully believe that the right strategic planning process steps are absent in these instances because many leaders have the following misconceptions about what strategic planning actually is (or isn’t).

Intermediate and even seasoned professionals have bought into these misconceptions so I want to address them up front before we get started.


Conquer these 6 misconceptions and you’re well on your way to becoming an effective strategic planner.


It’s too time consuming.

It’s too difficult or arduous.

It requires specific education, experience, or talent.

It applies only to very large organizations, and therefore, would never benefit me.


It’s not required for task-driven jobs like mine.

That’s senior management’s job, or a strategy manager or consultant’s job. Ultimately, that’s anyone else’s job but mine.

None of these misconceptions are true!  Not even close.  I speak from great experience.

I’m here to tell you that strategic planning is everyone’s job!

More importantly, as a leader, it’s your job!


Your ability to effectively create a strategic plan produces these significant and lasting benefits:

You will very much increase and enhance your team’s contribution.

You will move your team and your company in the desired direction.

You’ll increase your overall value to the company.



Let’s face it – business is becoming increasingly more competitive.

Brand loyalty, time to market,  speed and cost of business, and intellectual capital are all business measures that are under serious strain due to the narrow margins from which we continue to measure success.

As a leader, you owe it to yourself, your team, and to your company to ensure that strategic planning is very much a real part of your daily approach to your job.  You will not arrive to where you want to be without having a good strategic plan in place.

Increase your ability to lead by changing your mindset:  Your capability to strategically plan will enable you and your team to better prepare, better execute, and yes, you guessed it – lead.



Now that you are aware of the misconceptions regarding strategic planning let’s cover the definition and requirements of a strategic plan.


Then, I’ll share with you the structure, format and an example of a great strategic plan that you can tailor to your own business, each and every time.

Strategic Planning Definition and Associated (required) Activities

The Big Idea –  Strategic Planning Defined:

Strategic planning is any business planning activity that incorporates these 4 key activities within your company or organization:

Aligns with your company’s objectives, mission and brand


Identifies the resources necessary to execute the plan

Integrates within the operations of your stakeholders


Communicates the purpose, benefits, and value of the plan

These four activities (Align, Integrate, Identify, & Communicate) are foundational to any strategic plan.

They are key not just to your understanding of strategic planning, but to the construction and ultimate effectiveness of your plan.  In other words:


A plan that does not include these 4 activities is

not a strategic plan

and will not really serve your purpose or provide the results you desire.

As you develop your plan (which we will cover next), you should clearly be able to relate each of its tasks, projects, and initiatives back to these 4 actions. Otherwise, you put your plan (or parts of it) at risk of failure.

For example, here are some instances that illustrate how a project plan is at risk when these 4 activities are not incorporated into your strategic planning:


Aligns: Your plan emphasizes the company’s brand identity: a 100% ‘Made in the USA’ manufacturer.

Risk: Your strategic plan has a project that outsources an entire manufacturing line overseas.

Integrates: Your sales team has an initiative on their plan to sell a service to a niche consumer…

Risk: …but it requires skills and capabilities that your operations team does not possess.

Identifies: You develop a plan which requires capital investment in order for the plan to succeed.

Risk:  You haven’t identified when and from where those funds will come.

Communicates: You develop a plan that claims to increase the value of your team or company.

Risk: The plan does not state or show evidence for how it will increase product value, brand value, or customer loyalty.


Again, make sure you understand that by definition, a strategic plan must account for and incorporate each of these four actions.

And since this is so important it is worth repeating here one more time:

In every instance, be able to demonstrate the relationship between these 4 activities and each task, initiative, and project in your plan.

Strategic Planning Process Steps

Now that you know how to build a strong foundation for your strategic plan, what are the specific strategic planning process steps you need to follow to actually create the plan? 

People, operations, and technology are 3 common, but very significant areas of your business, right?  As a result, I recommend that they also be the focus of the 3 major steps of your strategic planning process.  

Further, I recommend that you follow these steps in order.

Here is a list (with details to follow) of the  three major strategic planning process steps you need to follow to set yourself up for success as you proceed with developing your own strategic plan:

1. People

Empower and utilize the specific strengths of people in your company or on your team

2. operations

Assess and refine operations

3. technology

Improve or upgrade (replace) technology

an important point

Both operations and technology should align with and support people. It should not be the other way around.

Benefits of each step


Because companies constantly makes decisions in these 3 areas, they already understand the relationships between them.


Many companies have definitive organizational structure around these 3 areas, which allows you to more effectively acquire support. Also, companies typically have resource and capital investment strategies within these 3 areas.


When you focus on these three areas, your audience is more likely to read the information than if you provide something that takes more effort to discern. Remember, if one cannot understand what you provide, you run the real risk of losing your audience AND their support.

avoiding detail overload when following these steps

A Key Insight


Each of the 3 steps is large.  Actually, quite large.  As a result, the level of detail can quickly become overwhelming.  

Here is the key to developing your plan with a highly effective, but not overwhelming, level of detail:

Use substeps


Within each of the 3 steps, which we’ll cover in a minute, think about how to sub-divide or break each step into smaller sub-steps.  These sub-steps could include functional areas or ‘buckets’ where you can compartmentalize like items and really develop your plan further.

The substeps can be high level goals and initiatives. They do not have to become stand-alone projects within your larger plan. Remember, this strategic plan is the OVERALL, big picture plan, not a highly detailed plan for every single goal or initiative.  Those can be written on individual, separate pages.  For your strategic plan, think higher level.

Furthermore, substeps are truly effective when you are working with a series of similar projects and initiatives within the larger strategic plan.

the actual details (and examples) of each step

Step 1: Empower and utilize the strengths of people


People are the most important asset you have in a company.  Talent is the lifeblood of an organization and the longer you are in the workforce, the more you come to understand that the war for talent is very, very real.


Differentiating the strengths of the people in your organization goes a long way in differentiating your company from the competition.  


Your strategic planning begins with this step: empowering and utlizing strengths of people.  As a leader, it is your responsibility to acquire talent,  and ensure they are trained and developed. Likewise, it is also your responsibility to empower them to fulfill their responsibilities, to set and reach goals,  and consequently, to reach their potential.



This step includes initiatives related to these areas:




Personal development

New job roles and responsibilities

Team training

Employee morale and engagement

Examples of Step 1

Hire a VP of sales

Institute an internship program

Retrain the team to the new batch inspection process

Develop a manager-in-training program

Develop a new employee feedback survey

Examples of substeps for Step 1






Training and Development


Employee engagement


Talent acquisition or hiring

Step 2: Assess and Refine Operations



Regardless of the industry or nature of the work, operations can be defined as the essential and continuous processes that occur within teams and companies in order to maintain and improve the overall performance of the organization. 


This step includes projects and initiatives directly related to your operations, such as:


Automating or eliminating processes

Assuming or transitioning team responsibilities

Defining operating hours or employee schedules

Modifiying logistics routes

Building new facilities

Also included are back office operations such as accounting, customer or vendor facing activities, and outsourcing or bringing operations in-house.



Examples of Step 2



Outsource a high cost manufacturing line to an overseas supplier


Build a new distribution center in your supply chain


Decrease the time necessary to bring a new product to market

Reduce labor expense on 3rd shift by 7%

Examples of substeps for Step 2




Vendor relationships





Systems, software, or equipment




Step 3: Improve or replace outdated technology


Because technology is continually changing, it is a fundamental requirement for your organization to consistently evaluate and upgrade the technological tools you use to maintain and grow your business. 

Technology not only enables people to perform their jobs or teams to perform their tasks, but it increases productivity, efficiency, and growth.  

You will not always have the ability to hire new people or to re-train your current team to perform in new ways. Sometimes process improvement alone is not enough to reach your goals unless you add new technology.  

Sometimes, you need new and different types of technology to permit people and operations to progress forward.



This step of the strategic planning process includes initiatives related to:



Systems integration and digitization

Purchase of new equipment or hardware

Learn about and introduce new types of technology and its applications

Examples of Step 3



Equip the remote sales force with a database to keep track of prospects

Install faster computers for invoice data entry

Integrate the order entry database with the warehouse database

Use a website to provide purchase orders and invoices to the accounting team


Examples of substeps for Step 3




Equipment or Hardware


New Systems or Integration



Infrastructure or Network

strategic plan format and structure

Now that you have successfully completed the three major strategic planning process steps, defined your projects, and organized them into sub-steps, what’s next? Structure.

Whether your document covers 1 month, 1 year, or a multi-year perspective, it is absolutely fundamental that you use the right strategic plan format and structure. Doing so will guarantee that you can repeatedly use the same structure for any future strategic planning events.

Here’s what I recommend you concentrate on while considering your strategic plan format and structure:


Focus on the big picture. Remember, this is an OVERALL strategic plan. The plan is focused on the big picture- NOT on detailed instructions for each project within the plan. Keep it high level.



Keep it to one page. Again, this is an overall strategic plan and not an implementation document. Therefore, I recommend keeping it high level and brief. Additional details and content can be offered, but if the result is a multi-page document you run a real risk of losing your audience.


Keep it visual. Use major headers or blocks to note key initiatives. Make the text easier to read by breaking it into smaller paragraphs or bullet points when possible. Also, use large, clear fonts. Additionally, whenever possible you can include easy-to-read charts, diagrams, and other visual methods of communication.



Place everything on a timeline. You can more clearly communicate duration (days, weeks, months) of iniatives and projects when you use a timeline. In addition, it is a great way to demonstrate the relationship between initiatives as well as the sequence of events.

benefits of this strategic plan format and structure

Be aware:  Many times, you will need significant support or approval to execute your strategic plan.  The structure I recommend is focused, 1 page, and easy to read and interpret.

 As a result, you are better able to communicate the content of your plan to others in a way that is more persuasive and, consequently, more likely to acquire the support you need to execute the plan.

Which leads to my next point…




Communication does not always lead to understanding

Here is an interesting Harvard Business Review interview with MIT Sloan School of Management Senior Lecturer, Donald Sull. He points out research in which 55% of managers could not name a single one of their company’s top 5 priorities!

If the video does not play on this page, watch it here.

He goes on to give some great insights as to the disparity between what executives believe they have communicated, vs. what managers and other employees actually understand.

This is especially relevant to the topic of strategic planning as it reinforces, once again,  the importance of clear communication. Following the structured strategic plan format outlined above makes it easier to communicate your strategic plan. You spent way too much time working on it to lose your audience in its communication!



a strategic plan sample for you

Here is a strategic plan sample for a sales department in Company ABC.  Notice I’m using the 3 steps, sub-steps, and timelines (in this case, quarters) that I previously discussed.  
Even if you don’t work at Company ABC, you can still very quickly and effectively understand the sales department’s strategic direction.

putting it all together-

a summary (and an infographic) 


Remove or address any misconceptions you have about the strategic planning process


Incorporate the 4 major business activities in each strategic plan


Follow the 3 steps, each having project initiatives organized into sub-steps


Focus on the big picture


Keep it to only 1 page


Use good visuals


Use timelines to demonstrate duration and sequence of events

putting it all together- a summary


Incorporate the 4 major business activities in each strategic plan



Follow the three steps, each having project initiatives organized into sub-steps


Focus on the big picture



Keep it to 1 page only



Use good visuals


Use timelines to demonstrate length and sequence of events

Closing thoughts

As I stated previously, strategic planners are effective leaders.

Their work, their teams, and their companies operate more effectively not only because their work has a strategic focus, but more importantly because the strategic planning they do actually enables their work.

Strategic planning assists leaders with both small and larger responsibilities.  Do not wait for more projects or responsibilities to come your way before you decide to become a strategic planner.  Begin now to develop the discipline and mindset necessary to become more of a strategic thinker.  

By following these strategic planning process steps, and creating a useful and reproducible structure for your plan, you will become more effective in your current role. Most of all, your leadership skills and capabilities will grow, enabling you to work through even larger, more complex situations in the future.

Finally, you will add more value to your team and company by providing a well-thought out, well-designed and effectively delivered strategic plan.

Best of luck-



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