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How to Remain Strategically Agile

How do you craft effective strategic plans in a world where your next biggest competitor might not even exist yet? By developing strategic agility.

pexels-photo-278918These days it’s amazing – and more than a bit disconcerting – how quickly a product, service or business model can go from a position of market leader to obsolescence.  Which is why the time has come to jettison the traditional strategic planning model in favor of a new approach.

As practiced for decades, traditional strategic planning gave leaders an effective tool for setting targets for their organizations and defining what it would take to achieve them.  Senior management typically went off-site for a couple of days, predicted what their industry would look like in three to five years, and put together a plan to get there.  When communicated well, the plan gave everyone in the organization a sense of direction and purpose. Even when it mostly sat on the shelf collecting dust, as many plans did, it still gave company leaders peace of mind knowing they had a plan to refer to if needed.

The world has changed dramatically since this planning model became the preferred approach. Yet, the need for smart planning hasn’t gone away.  In fact, planning is probably more important than ever.  What needs to change is how we plan and how we go about implementing our plans.

Specifically, we need to abandon the traditional strategic planning model in favor of one more in tune with the realities of today’s chaotic markets. I call this new approach “strategic agility.”

Moving Fast with Flexibility and Focus

Traditional strategic planning and strategic agility share many of the same elements. What has changed is how and when we deploy them. We still need to set a destination, communicate it, implement the plan, and adjust when necessary. However, this process unfolds very differently in the new strategic agility model. For example:

  • Planning horizon. In the past, companies generally planned three to five years out. (Some had the audacity to plan ahead as far as 10 to 20!) Today, when determining specifics, 12 to 18 months is the limit for most industries. For those that change faster, even six months might be pushing the horizon out too far.
  • Defining the destination. Companies often defaulted to “look at last year’s numbers and set the goal three to five percent higher.”  These days, the target should be based on market opportunities that align with your strengths and resources, not on how you performed last year.
  • Flexibility. The old planning model didn’t allow for much of this. It set a firm target and a firm route for getting there. These days, selecting a firm route is likely to steer you toward the corporate graveyard. You still need to have a clear and compelling destination, but it needs to include plenty of flexibility for the changes that will inevitably happen before you get there.
  • Plan review timeline. For many companies, the favored approach involved parking their plan on the shelf and getting together at the end of the year to see whether it happened. If you’re playing to win in today’s markets, you had better be checking in with your plan at least quarterly. Most industries need to do it monthly, so adjustments can be made in a timely manner.
  • Implementation. In the past, implementing the plan was senior management’s job. Today, it’s everyone’s job. Make implementation a top priority. Keep it in front of yourself and everyone else.  Talk about it, measure it, and modify it as needed. Most of all, be prepared to make sudden mid-course corrections based on circumstances beyond your control.

When done well, strategic agility turns slow-moving organizations into flexible, nimble ones that can respond to unexpected change without losing focus on the destination and how to get there.

Preparing for Disruptive Change

Our world used to be far more stable and predictable.  These days, change is like a turbo-charged steamroller – unstoppable and picking up speed all the time. What makes preparing for change far more difficult is the fact that the competitor who disrupts your industry may not even be in your industry. In fact, it may not even exist yet.  How do you plan for that?

This is where strategic agility comes into play. Rather than a once-a-year event like strategic planning, strategic agility involves an ongoing process that enables organizations to respond quickly and appropriately when disruptive change blows up their marketplace. (If this hasn’t happened to your industry yet, it will, probably sooner rather than later.)

The key to developing strategic agility is to make it a way of life. It needs to become part of your organizational DNA, so that people keep one eye on the future while doing what needs to get done today. This requires developing the skill of strategic thinking at all levels of the organization.

To get started on this adventure:

  • Focus on a target.  First, get very clear on what winning looks like for your organization.  Then communicate your vision of winning over and over until everyone understands where you’re going and what it will take to get there.
  • Ask the right questions.  Preparing for tectonic change requires seeing the world differently, an acquired skill for most people. To help employees develop this skill, ask questions that encourage them to look at the same data differently. That way, you get many different perspectives on any given issue.  Good questions also help shift the focus to finding what will work instead of what won’t.
  • Explore new channels.  To see your business and your customers differently, it helps to expand your data gathering beyond traditional sources.  Look at what’s happening beyond the walls of your business and your industry. In particular, pay attention to how other industries get disrupted by unexpected technologies or competitors.
  • Teach strategic thinking skills.  Strategic thinking involves learning to anticipate opportunities and threats while managing day-to-day tasks and responsibilities.  Give employees the training, coaching and mentoring they need to become more aware of and responsive to changing customer needs.  Teach creative problem solving skills, and help people see how their decisions and actions impact the business in the future as well as today.
  • Open the information floodgates. To make your business more agile and responsive, information must flow throughout the organization, especially to those who interact with customers on a daily basis.

Most of all, keep everyone focused on your picture of winning. Use a variety of communication formats – from emails to pictures, graphics, video and more – to keep winning front and center. Let people know how the organization will still win when new and unexpected changes arise.

The current rate of change doesn’t show any sign of slowing down. Developing strategic agility will allow you to respond (rather than react) to it without losing focus, and will keep your organization on track to win.

About Holly Green

Holly is CEO of The Human Factor, Inc., and helps companies achieve excellence by creating clarity on what winning looks like and determining how to get there. An experienced business leader, behavioral scientist, and keynote speaker, Holly has a rare combination of extensive academic training and in-the-trenches experience working in and leading organizations. She was previously President of The Ken Blanchard Company and a biotech start up. Her clients include companies of every shape and size from Google to pest control to healthcare, as well as professional and nonprofit associations. Holly is also a bestselling author. Her newest book, Using Your Brain to Win, was released to international acclaim.

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