Using well-established project management processes to perform strategic business planning
In my work, I regularly meet with principal and senior engineers about strategic business planning. Many are skittish; they are skeptical of the real value of the strategic planning process, or its applicability to their firm. The cynicism of these leaders typically stems either from little experience with the process and tools of planning, or from prior, failed experiences that have left them unimpressed, disappointed, even deflated. Still, many (most) acknowledge that the shortcomings in their experiences were as likely caused by shortcomings in the execution of their team as by the planning process itself.
I often have my work cut out for me, convincing these firm leaders to go at it for another round. But I also find that most want to believe (as I think they should) in the power of strategic business planning to improve their companies.
Beyond this initial reluctance or concern, two other issues commonly arise with engineering-focused organizations. First, engineers and other technical professionals generally like to solve problems (something most are quite good at). They believe that the more complex these problems are, the better. Often we’ll assemble a strategic planning team of senior leaders and managers, and they’ll come out charging, ready to identify and solve the most vexing of their organizational problems. I believe this is the wrong approach to take early on in a planning session.
During this first step, the visioning process, the goal is quite the opposite from problem solving; it is dreaming of a new and compelling, overarching objective, along with its own new challenges and problems (and frankly, often some rather unsolvable ones at first blush). For example, think back to John Kennedy, circa 1961, and the national challenge to go to the moon and come back safely. This was a vision that certainly created new problems for the nation’s technical minds. Another example my colleague Giles Jacknain relates is this: On Saturday morning, you first decide that you want to visit the museum (a vision) before deciding to get on the elevated subway to begin the trip (a strategy of how to accomplish the vision).
The second obstacle in convincing engineering firm leaders of the power of strategic business planning is that many engineers instinctively approach the strategic planning effort as they do other non-technical, business management processes such as marketing, communications, recruitment and retention, and training and development. These topics are presumed to be "squishy," non-quantitative, immeasurable, too "touchy-feely." In my view, the reality is quite the contrary, and the strategic business planning process—like results-focused programs in most other business management areas—can be measurable, quantifiable, action-oriented, and individually accountable.
To make this point and, frankly, to better leverage the strengths of engineering firms’ organizations, approaches, and individual leaders, we encourage our planning clients to manage their strategic planning efforts explicitly as a project, fully employing the project management systems, processes, and skills used in their organization. This project approach then entails actions such as the following:
- naming the project and "pulling a job number" for the effort from the firm’s accounting system, just as for a client project;
- billing hours and effort focused on planning assignments to the job, and holding the planning team’s members accountable for meeting project utilization objectives;
- assigning senior leaders as project managers to the various tasks and initiatives within the process;
- assigning an overall project manager responsible for completion of the strategic planning project (generally the key leader of the firm such as the president, COO, or CEO);
- outlining and securing resources outside of the organization, such as the continued support of planning advisors or consultants as implementation "coaches";
- determining and documenting a plan (for the planning process itself), outlining a schedule, setting a budget for the effort, and managing the team to these metrics; and
- creating and completing appropriate deliverables to the customers of the planning process, including not only the leadership and management team, but also employees in the organization, clients and customers, and other outside stakeholders with an interest in the future of the company.
Managing strategic business planning as a project helps the engineering company to organize this critically important effort around an execution approach that is both familiar and comfortable to the organization. It plays to the general strengths of the firm, as well as to individuals on the planning and execution team. Additionally, treating it as an official project helps to make the process tangible and not "squishy," as well as imminently doable—although challenging by definition.
In summary, here are three points to consider for enhancing success through the strategic planning process. First: Do it. Despite the fear, lack of experience, or poor experiences of the past, this effort, fully leveraged over an entire organization and over a five-year planning process, can and should be one of your most proud achievements and best investments in the future of the firm.
Second, having committed to the journey, resist the instinctive temptation to start solving obvious problems within the organization. Instead, dream for a while about what you and the firm really want to do in the next five years. Remember, nothing is more positively correlated with success (both individually and in teams) than the passion and drive to do something.
And finally, after detailing the vision, strategies, and actions planned, manage the whole process as a project. Think of the strategic plan as "The Project." The project to make the firm better, no matter how you and your team define success: larger, more profitable, more diverse, more sustainable, or something else. Accomplishing in this area is difficult (not necessarily complex, but certainly hard). However, it is necessary to drive an engineering firm forward toward an exciting, compelling, and valuable future.
John Doehring is a principal and managing director of ZweigWhite’s business planning and marketing consulting group. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.