Leadership: The best-laid plans

No strategic plan is fully resistant to change; business leaders must be flexible in order to adapt
Sandy Huangsident and principal consultant, Pinpoint Tactics: "business leaders need to be mindful of changes and willing to accomodate them"

Barry Sharp, president of AMA Management Ltd., likens a business' strategic plan to a roadmap. "If I want to drive from here to Calgary, the first thing I do is look at potential routes and pick one that's likely faster, more direct or less-problematic than the rest," he said

It's also important to consider unforeseen issues – traffic, weather and road closures – that could crop up along the way.

"The fact that I know where I want to get to is just the start," said Sharp. "It's the process of planning itself – considering my options before making a decision – that lets me change direction midway if problems arise."

"Creating a strategic plan is absolutely crucial and every organization should have one to help guide its business toward various goals and objectives within a certain timeframe … but it isn't set in stone," agreed Wazuku Advisory Group principal Mike Watson.

In order for leaders to effectively work with a strategic plan, Watson recommends reviewing it on a quarterly basis and reworking it as needed.

"The market doesn't stay stagnant; things shift," he said, adding that various changes can impact a strategic plan, from new government regulations and tax policies to increased competition and updated technologies.

"A strategic plan is based on a number of assumptions, plus the capabilities of the team you have in place at the time," Watson said. "As such, you can reasonably expect things will be different down the road and, as a leader, you have to be willing to work with change, not against it."

The review process doesn't need to be complicated.

"Sit down as a senior team, compare your progress against the accountabilities that were originally set and consider the results," he said. "If you haven't been achieving the way you expected, ask yourself why; if you find yourself off track, re-plan."

Both Watson and Sharp say that strategic re-planning in the face of change requires a calculated response – not a knee-jerk reaction.

"Stay calm and force yourself to take any emotion you may be feeling out of the equation," Watson said. "Honestly assess the strategic impact: what gap does it leave? Are any client relationships at risk as a result?"

If necessary, create a short-term plan to temporarily alleviate the issues until a more permanent solution can be put in place.

"When you're ready to look longer term, try to use change as an opportunity to tweak your strategic direction rather than just fill a hole," said Sharp. "Why is it happening? What new information do you have that could be used to your advantage? It's a good time to enhance your plan to improve your success."

Kevin Armstrong, a management consultant with the Interdependent Training Group, works with companies that have used change to better their business.

"One of my clients was heavily into engineering processes for the pulp and paper industry in B.C. until that market began to decline," he recalled. "We looked at his plan and decided to shift into Alberta, figuring out what he'd need to do to enter that market within five years. Now that he's achieved his goal, it's time to review his plan again."

While some changes may require a more immediate response, a strong strategic plan will have set systems and procedures in place from the start in order to prevent business leaders from being caught off guard.

"If your company is anticipating succession or any significant change in key staff members, strategic planning can mean the difference between a smooth transition and a complete loss of direction," said Sandy Huang, president and principal consultant at Pinpoint Tactics. "This disruption can cause the loss of employees and productivity and may incur financial losses for your business if it has not been planned for fully."

Besides including detailed job descriptions and responsibilities in your strategic plan, she stresses the importance of being creative and flexible in dealing with change.

"Business leaders need to be mindful of changes and willing to accommodate them," Huang said. "It's important to have a clear vision of what's down the road five years from now but, at the same time, you need to remain aware that things change."

Achieving staff buy-in is also a key.

"When a company undergoes strategic planning [or re-planning] with the intention of moving in a new direction or introducing new ideas … it is critical to get key staff – not just management – on board early," she explained.

Watson adds that cultural readiness must be taken into consideration, too.

"Ask yourself if your organization is ready for change and, if the answer is no, you may need to stretch a new strategic direction out over time," he said. "The key is to recognize the challenges you face and the context in which you face them and be flexible and willing to work with that."

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