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Every company needs a plan, but not every company is successful in building one—or the one they have is sufficient but far from ideal. How can leadership be sure they are reaching the full potential of their planning activities? We’ve got seven steps to help get you there. 

Step 1: Tightly Structure your Planning Meeting.

It can be tempting to enter a strategic planning session with company leadership and open with a brainstorming session with a loose set of parameters. After all, this can boost creativity and engagement across the team. But be careful with this one, because it could quickly devolve into a degree of chaos. 

Instead, set a clear agenda and objectives for the meeting. This helps ensure the meetings stays focused and productive, and will give attendees a sense of what they can expect. While some may think this could stifle creativity, we have found that a good agenda and format to a meeting can actually encourage participants to contribute more because they have a focused set of goals instead of a wide-open, blank slate. 

Step 2: Invite the Right People.

Keep it small or go bigger? This is a common question when it comes to deciding who to invite to a planning session. There is no one right answer. Some planning meetings are more effective with just the most senior leadership, while others may want to bring in multiple levels from executives to department managers. No matter the size of your company or what you think is your ideal meeting size, one thing is certain: make sure that anyone you invite has a vested interest in the company’s success. 

Step 3: Do your Homework, Then Do it Again.

You must go into future planning with a comprehensive understanding of the company’s current situation. Don’t assume you already know it. Go in with little assumptions and take the time to thoroughly review financial performance, market trends, and the competitive landscape. Not only will this information help inform the development of future strategy, but it often reveals potential obstacles or challenges you may have missed otherwise. Remember: what you don’t know can hurt you.

Step 4: Perform a SWOT Deep Dive.

Identify the company’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT), and be thorough. This assessment helps leadership understand the challenges and opportunities the company faces right now, and will provide a foundation for the development of the company’s future strategy. SWOT exercises can feel tedious at times, but they are essential for developing a comprehensive understanding of where you stand, and you don’t have to do it alone. Invite others to weigh in.

Step 5: Think Long-term.

Coming off the SWOT analysis is a perfect time to develop the company’s long-term goals and objectives. These goals should be ambitious, but also realistic, and they should be aligned with the company’s overall mission and vision. After all, what is true in, say, summer 2023 may totally flip by Spring of 2024. It’s also important to encourage open and honest discussion about the company’s future direction for anyone participating. 

Step 6: Get Specific.

Once the company’s goals and objectives are defined, you must identify the specific initiatives and actions that will be taken to achieve those goals. These goals might include items such as developing new products or services, expanding into new markets, or implementing new processes or technologies. Prioritize these initiatives and actions, assign ownership, and assign a timeline to each one. Don’t be afraid to dig in—ironing out the details can be the difference between a successful strategy and one that’s dead in the water. 

Step 7: Plan to Implement.

Lastly, you must create a plan for implementing and tracking the company’s strategy. This plan should include specific milestones and metrics that will be used to measure the success of the stated initiatives and actions as well as a timeline for implementation. It’s important to regularly review and update the plan to ensure that it remains relevant and effective. 

Conducting a successful strategic plan requires careful preparation, clear communication, and active participation from all attendees. By following these seven steps, you can help ensure that your company’s strategic planning session is productive and effective and that it leads to the development of a comprehensive and actionable plan for the future direction of the company.