“What you put your attention on grows.” A better strategic planning model for entrepreneurs

by IdeaTransfer on January 17, 2012

We have worked with many producer-founded financial services firms as well as family businesses in other fields.  January always releases a lot of strategic planning energy in these small-to-midsized companies, and we are often asked to facilitate strategic planning retreats.

We always enjoy the role—generating debate and building consensus by asking tough questions, challenging assumptions, jumping from big picture perspective to micro-management details and back again.  And every year one impression gets stronger….

Strategic planning isn’t all that complicated.

There is an expectation that the strategic planning process must be businesslike, logical, analytical, and objective.  That may be what mega enterprises and prestigious business schools try to make it, but is that best model for you?

Entrepreneurial businesses are founded on individual instincts and obstinate opinions about what people really want and why nobody else is really delivering it.  In our experience, that kind of stubborn passion is more useful to strategic planning than any academic formula or clever consultant acronyms.

We once heard a very wise man say, What you put your attention on grows, so choose carefully where you put your attention.

Where you put your attention, focus, commitment, perseverance—whatever you want to call it–is the heart of strategic planning.  The founders we know have good instincts for recognizing a great strategy when they hear one and great drive to execute it.  Your strategic planning effort boils down to deciding the best place for your attention looking forward.  Why complicate that?

Try strategic planning from the wildcat formation.

What helps your kind of business find what deserves attention is more likely a fast-paced creative think tank environment—lightning-strike ideas, dead-stop challenges, off-the-wall what-ifs.  Two days or less will do it.  A session that is completely open-ended followed next day by a session devoted to finding the holes, analyzing alternatives, anticipating consequences, nailing loose ends.  What you get is clarity for what’s next and energy and excitement for execution.

OK, but let’s define future.

How far out can a small company plan?  Depends on what change you are planning for.  Growth—maybe two or three years before the plan becomes sheer speculation.  Building an ownership transition strategy on the other hand doesn’t become a reality for five years (sale) or even ten years (succession).   Maybe the timeframe is out of your control—probable industry developments, regulatory shifts, technology innovations at some point in the future.  These game changers force you to think through multiple contingencies and nonlinear futures.

The story comes first.

Always document the plan, right?  Sure.  We write plans down because that’s what clients believe they need for the implementation steps.  But it’s amazing how many strategic plan documents get stuck in drawers—ironically forgotten once they are preserved on paper.  Why?  Because a written plan does not inspire.  A story inspires.

Every founder has a story to tell.  Every company has a story to tell.  Every product and service has a story to tell.  Great and true stories make people want to buy.  Think of your strategic plan as your new story—part history, part vision, part promise—and the most powerful implementation tool you can design.

Remember Why-How-What (if not, Google Simon Sinek)?  The story is the Why.  People buy in when they agree with what the plan stands for.  The Why is what they put their attention on first.  Once they believe in Why, they want to put their attention on How and What—the methods and mechanics to achieve the goals.

Do you really need strategic planning?

Turn the question around.  Why would you avoid it?  It is a great way to control the attention of the firm–whether you see the future as a dangerous challenge or you are on an unstoppable roll.

So, turn the attention formula around too.  If you don’t define what you want your firm’s attention on, what grows?  Or, if you let everyone’s attention drift toward their obstacles and problems, what grows?

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