Through the years our team has facilitated thousands of strategic planning sessions with ambitious, open minded business leaders.  These sessions are most productive when a leadership team leaves with two clear sets of decisions to work on over the next quarter.

The first set of decisions is the handful (3-5) of change projects that need to be executed over the next quarter. These can only be determined in the context of a clear vision, 3-5 year strategic moves, and an honest assessment of the current reality for the company.  These projects become the Strategic Priorities for the organization for the next 13 weeks.

The second set of decisions are the Operational Targets.  Leaders and employees must continue to focus on the day-to-day business: finding and serving customers, producing products, and delivering value.  The health of operational work in any organization is measured by results (financial or otherwise) and guided by a few leading key performance indicators.

Healthy companies realize that effort, resources and attention must be paid to both Strategic Priorities AND Operational Targets.  Too much focus on one area, to the neglect of the other, will lead to suboptimal performance either in the short or longer term.

A Simpler Approach to Strategic Priorities

The simplest way to think of a Strategic Priority is to consider it a project.  However, the world of project management can be an intimidating place.  It can seem complex, full of unique processes, tools, and terminology.

I was fortunate to spend considerable time earlier in my career with MacKenzie Kyle, author of the book Making It Happen.  Within his book is the story of a leader trying to find a simpler way to approach projects.  Using the “management fable” style of writing, MacKenzie describes a practical approach to project management.  I call it the Why-What-How method of project planning.

  1. The Why – well managed projects in any company require a clear answer to the questions, “Why are we doing this?”, and “ What is wrong with the status quo?”.   Since projects will consume effort, energy and resources, there must be clearly defined benefits of the project outcomes.And it’s not enough for just management or leaders to understand the rationale for a project.  Every employee involved in executing the project or using the project outcomes must clearly understand “the why” of the project. When a project is positioned as a Strategic Priority it should be obvious to all how the shorter term project links to the overall vision of the organization.  For instance, if having a national presence for your brand is part of the company’s vision, then “Opening a Toronto branch” is an obvious project moving towards that vision. It is also prudent at the outset of project planning to establish a clear definition of the scope of the project (both inclusions and exclusions), how project success will be measured, resources available to execute the project (time, money, information, skills and other requirements), and key roles (project manager and sponsor).  All of these elements, including the answer to the “Why” question, can be defined on a single page.
  2. The What – this step answers the question, “what will it look like when it’s done?”.  For a tangible project, like an office renovation, the answer to this question could be expressed in design drawings, floorplans, or artistic renderings.  For intangibles like new processes, “the what” answer may be a process map or flowchart listing activities, handoffs, and paper trails. When the project is a Strategic Priority the term “committed outcomes” is appropriate.  Each Strategic Priority has one or more committed outcomes defined as specifically as possible.  These are the deliverables of the project.
  3. The How – this final planning step defines the work needed to be done to get from where we are today to the completion of the project.  For most Strategic Priorities, this can be as simple as a task list defining each activity, a due date, and the name of a person who is accountable (avoiding more complex project management tools like time-scaled Gantt charts or work breakdown structures). The importance of this step cannot be understated.  Once the task list is defined, with dates, it becomes the baseline.  Then execution can be monitored through the quarter to see progress by tracking which tasks are complete and which are not.  Management can see early if the project is lagging behind schedule or at risk.

The order of this process is important and  leaders must recognize that step 1 precedes step 2, and step 2 precedes step 3.  There is no point spending time on defining “The What” without first defining “The Why”, and likewise it’s almost impossible to plan “The How” without “The What”.

Better Planning – Better Results

The approach outlined above is a simple framework that can be applied to any type or size of project.  It has been applied in projects ranging  from   multi-billion dollar energy projects through to the planning of a small wedding (you can decide, dear reader, which is more important).

Countless research studies have been undertaken to understand why projects fail.  Though there are many specific reasons for failure, almost all fall into two categories:

  • lack of appropriate planning
  • lack of communication

Using the Why-What-How can significantly improve the chances of success of your projects, driving better execution of your strategy and progress towards your vision.

Do you know someone who’s having trouble with executing their strategic priorities? Share this post with them!

Article by Tim O’Connor