Strategy should identify strengths & weaknesses

May 5th, 2015

“You must always be able to predict what’s next and then have the flexibility to evolve.”

—Marc Benioff

Several of my recent columns have discussed the transformational change occurring in our healthcare delivery system at the federal and state levels. The columns have mentioned the words “strategic positioning” as the most recent description for organizational planning purposes. This column takes a step back and addresses the challenges and process associated with strategic planning. Strategic planning is longer term (3 to 5 years) compared to strategic positioning (at 12 to 18 months).

In order to obtain a different perspective on organizational planning, I recently met with Gail McIntyre, a partner in The Bonadio Group’s Syracuse office. Gail is a CPA with approximately 30 years of experience and publishes a monthly column on accounting matters for the Central New York Business Journal.

My conversation with Gail was particularly interesting since she has a broader view of organizational planning processes due to the wide variety of clients she serves, including government, for-profit and non-profit entities. The following dis­cussion presents her views on developing organizational strategies:

Planning is a challenge. More than once a client has told me that the last time they asked their managers to update the strategic plan, the response sounded something like “So, by the time we finish the plan, we will have already implemented all of its strategies,” or, “We did a plan a few years ago but haven’t really done anything with it.”

In fairness, developing a true strategic plan is no simple task. Too often, the strategic plan gets derailed because it evolves into a wish list or a retrospective evaluation. While there will certainly be consideration of both during the development stages, the strategic plan should ultimately identify (unique) strengths and (relevant) weaknesses, which can provide insight on new opportunities or causes of current problems.

Sounds fairly straightforward—and in a way, it is. The tricky part is understanding that a plan takes time and focused energy to develop, and a successful plan requires a commitment to implementation. Perhaps the most important consideration is communication. Without effective and candid communication, it is difficult to understand not only where you are, but also how to set clear and realistic goals to get you to your objective. Communication does not ensure success, but lack of effective communication almost guarantees failure.

Is strategic planning worthwhile? Most successful business leaders and organizations would respond with a resounding “Yes!”

A typical source of confusion about strategic planning is lack of understanding. Here is a primer: A business plan focuses on actions necessary to generate revenue and includes information about products, services and the competitive environment.

An operating plan is a directive that includes tasks and action steps to accomplish the goals of the strategic plan, generally identifying specific roles and timelines.

A strategic plan is the tool that offers guidance in fulfilling the “mission,” which is likely successfully providing goods or services based on core competencies. (It is OK not to be all things to all people.) Clearly articulated goals and action steps are important aspects.

An implementation plan is akin to a user’s guide to the strategic plan.

The first step in developing a strategic plan is to have a clear view of external challenges and opportunities. Sometimes, as can be easily seen with technology, for example, one specific reality can provide both opportunity and challenge. As important as the external understanding is the internal. What are your limitations? Your strengths? Are you able to be objective and do some soul searching? A clear assessment provides the starting point for determining the actual plan.

As noted earlier, communication is critical, as is gathering input from all stakeholder groups. Board members, management, employees, service providers and customers provide valuable insight. You need to hear from all groups that will be part of the plan’s implementation or subject to its effects.

Another delicate point of navigation is keeping the work group from becoming too large and bogged down while still ensur­ing input from and communication with stakeholders. To accomplish this, a strong planning committee is key.

The planning group should include board members and senior leadership—but beware. It is not healthy for these individuals to micromanage or become heavy-handed. Sharing responsibility is reasonable, more likely to engage others and also helps keep the project from getting bogged down. With so many aspects to consider, a team approach makes perfect sense.

Many times a consultant is engaged not to delegate responsibility for the project, but to provide experienced insight, help keep things on course and maintain mo­mentum. While outside assistance can be invaluable, it is up to the organiza­tion’s leadership to identify mission, vi­sion and values statements. Who else but leadership can answer these fundamental questions: “What do we do?” “Where do we want to be?” and “What do we believe in?”

Strategic direction must be based on a strong organizational foundation of de­finitive statements regarding mission, vision and values. A critical component of successful planning is linking your short-term strategic positioning to your long-term strategic plan.

A strategic plan on the closet shelf is not effective. Therefore, it is imperative to take some time to consider these questions and whether you are ready to get serious on strategy.

Reprinted with permission of the Rochester Business Journal.

Gerald Archibald is a partner serving both of our Rochester, NY, and New York City offices.

This material has been prepared for general, informational purposes only and is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for, tax, legal or accounting advice. Should you require any such advice, please contact us directly. The information contained herein does not create, and your review or use of the information does not constitute, an accountant-client relationship.

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