We often hear about strategic planning in the business world, and rightly so; having a 50,000-foot perspective is the first step in the planning process. While this long-term mindset is essential, it is virtually worthless unless translated into day-to-day action plans.
The descent from 50,000-foot planning to ground level is more challenging than most leaders realize. A vertical dive will bring disaster. As with pilots, we must lead the crew and passengers through a manageable glide path to ground level, carefully translating strategies into daily actions. This is most effectively done through a four-step process: (1) ensure that a summary of strategies is continuously communicated at all organizational levels, (2) project planning linked directly to strategic initiatives, (3) intermediate plans as a function of those projects, and (4) weekly and daily action planning.
Often strategic planning takes place annually, whereas ground-level planning should occur no less frequently than weekly. This time gap detaches long-term, strategic planning from day-to-day actions that drive success. Marshall Goldsmith, in his best-selling book Triggers, puts it this way: “The shorter the time gap between our planning and our doing, the greater the chance we’ll remember our plan. As the time between planning and doing increases, our enthusiasm and discipline fade.”
Recognizing this, corporate leaders must resist the temptation to complete this year’s strategic plan and leave it on the shelf until another year passes. The first step to operationalizing it is to write and distribute a concise summary of the plan throughout the company. Its key elements should include:
- the company vision (why the business exists)
- the unique value proposition (what we are the best in the world in delivering)
- the economic engine (how money is made), and
- specific goals in terms of financial, customer, operational, training and development, and recruitment/ retention outcomes.
Leaders should refer to this document with their people continuously in the course of day-to-day operations. It serves as institutional memory, i.e., reinforcement to help everyone remember who we are, why we exist, and where our attention belongs.
Without this memory, the inevitable temptations and distractions that Goldsmith referenced will almost always derail desired achievement. This concise summary acts as the company rudder, keeping us on course as we move to action planning.
The second step, project planning, is typically the domain of key executives. They must fit strategic expectations to a timeline and develop projects that will take goals into reality. Each project should include milestones in terms of both actions and outcomes throughout the course of a year or more.
The third step to a safe landing at ground level is the development of intermediate plans that extend from projects. I prefer a six-week rolling time horizon for these. Action and outcome milestones within the upcoming six weeks are considered each Friday, at which time calendaring and assignments are updated. This provides ready direction for the following week, as well as an early reminder of upcoming action expectations within the next 42 days.
Six-week intermediate plans provide the glide path into the fourth step: weekly and daily action planning. At this point, each individual on the company team needs to plan their daily marching orders. Personally, I do this early each Monday morning, quickly reviewing the key elements of my 50,000-foot plan, then using the six-week plan as the first step in putting together my “business action plan” for the week.
However, like most of you, my life is not one-dimensional. In addition to business, I have important—and often urgent—family, community, church, and personal goals and action plans to attend to. These must merge into my business life (or vice-versa); otherwise, my landing at the ground level is still very rough.
To help me with this, I mind map my to-do list. Mind mapping is simply a visual diagram that allows me to organize information. For each major area of my life, I list the various actions that must be accomplished. Having done so, I am able to then calendar my week. I have found that I am far more productive and balanced in both my work and personal life if I do this on a consistent basis.
At the end of any given day, the question we all must answer is: Did my actions lead me closer to my 50,00- foot destinations? These four steps will help assure that the answer is YES!
Richard Tyson is the founder, principal owner and president of CEObuilder, which provides forums for consulting and coaching to executives in small businesses.