How are strategic plans formulated: Cooking a Good Meal

If strategy is as important as we said it was last month, then clearly there must be some complex and convoluted way to write one, right? Wrong! The process is amazingly simple. But to adapt a quote from Clausewitz, we’ll say that “the simplest thing is difficult.”

You have to think of writing your strategy like making a tasty and healthy meal. You might disagree, but making a good meal is pretty simple, too. Yet it sometimes feels so complicated and difficult, and that’s because you need good tools, good ingredients, and time.

Tools: The tools you use are important; facilitators, collaborative spaces, whiteboards and easel paper are like the pots, pans, and knives. If you’ve got dull knives in the form of poor brainstorming tools, your process will take longer and frustrate you. If you’ve got clean and appropriately oiled pots and pans, like a facilitator who keeps people on task and maintains the clarity of thought needed, ingredients mix and cook well. Good tools make the foundation for a good meal—and good strategy.

Ingredients: But while tools are necessary, it’s the ingredients that really make a meal healthy and taste great; people and ideas are the ingredients to the strategic planning process. Just as you would never use rotten vegetables or spoiled meat, participants in strategic planning can’t bring negative energy to the table. You also want to use the freshest material you can get; you want the latest information and participants who have the intellectual nimbleness—the freshness—to understand that information. But the material can’t be so fresh that it’s unripened; you want experienced and wise participants who are comfortable with smart assumptions and taking risks. The people and ideas that are the ingredients of strategic planning are absolutely critical.

Time: And just like in cooking it takes time to make things right—undercooked ingredients can range from causing minor stomach problems to serious illness, strategic planning takes time. Ideas have to simmer; people need to mix. Most important, the participants in strategic planning need to dedicate time to do this. You can’t devise strategy while dealing with the crises in email or a zillion other distractions.

Once you’ve got the tools, ingredients, and time in place, then the process to get the strategy is not so different from following this recipe:

  1. Understand yourself: what are your strengths, your weaknesses?
  2. Understand your environment: what opportunities and threats are out there?
  3. Understand others: who are your stakeholders, and what do they care about?
  4. Agree on purpose: why do you do what you do? What’s your mission, and how do you envision your community looking down the road?
  5. Design value: given yourself, your environment, others, and your purpose—your why—what value can you bring that your stakeholders will care about?

The process is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult. Many people screw up the simplicity and lose the focus and clarity of thought needed to develop a good strategy, because they want to feel comfortable. They want to quantify everything. They want to study things further. They want to constrain business to what already exists or costs that can be measured. Strategic planning can be quite uncomfortable. We’ll end with our last reference to the cooking analogy though: if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.

Steve Jobs said, “Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.” Bon appetite!


Why is "strategy" important?

If you’re familiar with the term “strategic planning,” you may associate it with lofty goal making, lots of time spent in frustrating conversations, and money spent on glossy documents that gather dust; if not, it may just sound like an abstract exercise meant for the brainy eggheads in your company or organization. Truth be told, it’s none of the above if done right, and strategic planning may be the very process that helps keep your doors open while your peers or competitors find themselves in varying stages of irrelevance.

Good strategic planning results in an imagined story of your future value to others. And while it isn’t hard to write a good story, it takes a few commitments to let your imagination run. You have to make deliberate assumptions to simplify the future. You have to tolerate risk to achieve something big. And you have to trust your gut and jump. A participant in a recent strategic planning session I facilitated said it well: “You have to place the hard bets, and you have to be willing to ante up.”

Strategic planning writes a story, and next month, I’ll want to discuss with you the process of story writing and get your thoughts about those commitments above. In future months, I’ll also want to dialogue with you on the leadership, followership, and management of change to turn that written story into real life. But before digging into either, I think it’s important to recognize why having a strategy–a story–is so important.

Having worked with organizations of varying missions and at different stages of growth, I’ve encountered some common problems:

  1. The day-to-day tasks of employees don’t align with business goals or “the-way-it’s-done” putters along inefficiently, lowering morale and motivation. Time–and therefore salary or payroll costs–is spent on miscellany that does not contribute to the core business, and this wasted time and money perpetuates itself.
  2. There are a lot of good–and bad–ideas on how to make things better, but there’s either no way to share and explore them or no ability for leaders to be secure in their decisions, including resource allocation, on those ideas.
  3. Work moves along everyday with no real challengers (“this is the way we’ve always done it”), but the organization gets caught off guard when someone leaves for a better opportunity, a competitor swoops in and grabs market share, or a new product makes yours irrelevant.

A strategy–a story–is important because it unifies everyone behind what your business does and prevents these common problems from occurring. It motivates your employees to bring their creativity to bear, because they know why they are doing what they do. It gives your leaders an ability to decide what to do, as the story talks about how you bring value to others. It prevents strategic surprise, because the story recognizes many of the villains that will take you off track.

Your strategy is important, because it’s how you talk about your future. But when you forget your story, someone else’s story becomes what’s told.

How Would You Grade Your Citizenship Today?

Take a quick second to reflect on the teachers in your youth who made a difference in your life.  Ask why that person inspired you.  Now hold that thought!

“A general diffusion of knowledge and intelligence being essential to the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people, the Legislature shall encourage by all suitable means the promotion of intellectual, scientific, moral, and agricultural improvement…. The Legislature shall provide for a system of common schools by which a free school shall be kept up and supported in each district at least six months in every year, after the first year in which a school has been established.”          -Article 9, Sections 1 & 5, California Constitution

We the People of California decided generations ago that public education is vital to a healthy democratic society, and it makes both philosophical and intuitive sense.  John Rawls, a renowned 20th century philosopher, said in Justice as Fairness that childrens’ education “should also prepare them to be fully cooperating members of society and enable them to be self-supporting; it should also encourage the political virtues so that they want to honor the fair terms of social cooperation in their relations with the rest of society.”  If we each think about those teachers who impacted our lives, I imagine that many, if not all of us credit them partially with the work ethic or foundational skills that we consider indispensible parts of our lives today.  Whether you look at it philosophically or intuitively, education is key to our continued societal and personal well being.

Building on the idea of being self-supporting, we often talk of the education system’s success in terms of descriptive statistics.  That may be why during a LEAD San Diego IMPACT session both Scott Himelstein of USD’s Center for Education Policy and Law and Richard Barrera, a Trustee of the San Diego Unified School District, cited a statistic that of ten students in San Diego, only two or three (specifically, 2.4) will go onto university and only one will be in a meaningful career.  That may also be why we define public school performance in California with the “Academic Performance Index,” or API, which if you read carefully online, is a complicated statistical measurement of baseline and growth data whose methodology evolves from year to year.  It’s hard to dispute that talking about education is itself hard, because you can’t quite know if your conception of success is necessarily captured in the descriptive statistics we discuss.  I’m an engineer by trade and have the same Master in Public Policy degree as the Trustee I mentioned, and I would be lying through my teeth if I claimed to understand this all.

Last month in this blog, I talked about wanting to make a difference, and this month, I want to talk about those who do.  It’s people like Bill Freeman, the 2009 San Diego Unified Elementary School Teacher of the Year and retired Army Lieutenant Colonel, and Dr. Randy Ward, San Diego County’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, who make a difference everyday.  It’s people like Alan Hallback, my high school music teacher who taught me so much more than just playing the clarinet and oboe, but about life and leadership.  It’s about the person whom you thought of when I asked you to reflect on those teachers who have made an impact in your life.

And we best support these servants of the public good by living the very ideals they teach: civility, respect, and compassion.  We know that education is important, but we also know that talking about education is complicated.  We know that education is vital, but we disagree on how vital and the most cost effective means to achieve success.  But if we can work through the modern moral problem of “us versus them” as described by Harvard psychologist Joshua Greene, “good citizen” won’t become one of the endangered species deserving protection and exhibits at the San Diego Zoo.  Instead, we can utilize the benefits of diversity of thought for improvements in education.  Our civil, respectful, and compassionate support and engagement with the governance of education today may very well stem the tide of growing incarceration expenditure and other social justice problems for tomorrow.

Wanting to Make a Difference

I was uplifted as I left the second monthly session of LEAD San Diego’s IMPACT program last Thursday.  I sat in the conference center at Sea World with forty or so leaders of San Diego who collectively expressed a need to share the benefits of the privileges we have to help our communities.  Said more abstractly, I felt a strong sense of responsibility for the public good!  What a stark contrast it was against the backdrop of gridlock in Washington, DC—elected officials with plenty of privilege failing to provide reasonable assurances for our economy and public servants—and a huge failure in mayoral leadership in our own backyard!

I am a man blessed with good health, a supportive family, and educators who cared about my growth when I was young.  Being a part of the LEAD Impact program, I was able to meet with and ask direct questions to the four leading mayoral candidates as we discussed our city’s future challenges.  But as one of my LEAD colleagues stated, not only did we meet with potential elected leaders to discuss how to “break up the pie” of civic resources, we also had the opportunity to learn from the San Diego Regional Association of Governments (SANDAG), the San Diego Tourism Authority, and the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation (EDC) to talk about how to “grow the pie.”  The blessings compound exponentially with the level of expertise and broad exposure to which I have access simply through my forty or so classmates in LEAD.

I left uplifted because it wasn’t so important for us to count our blessings, as I just did, but rather to discuss how we could each take our blessings and channel them for the betterment of our communities.  Jason N. commented on our duty to take the information we had gained and to share it with our circles of influence.  I challenged the group to ask whether we are committed enough to our communities that we would be willing to “let go” a bit in some of our respective public policy positions for the collective good.  Unless I’m mistaken, I saw heads nodding and felt a shared sense of purpose as I left that day.  Clearly we each felt a responsibility for the public good because we were afforded privilege, not just through the LEAD seminar, but also in our lives in general.

If the forty or so of us spread this feeling of responsibility wherever we went, I believe we’d see tangible benefits.  Against the grain of self-interest as the overriding principle for maximized economic benefit, a Harvard Business School working paper suggested that those who share do feel happier.  These same researchers built on that to show that generosity in the workplace by giving to others or those in need result in improved job satisfaction and employee performance—higher sales, more wins, etc..  Thinking more broadly about our region and civic engagement, I suggest that sharing our feeling of responsibility for the public good will help us raise San Diego from its poor ranking in civic engagement in 2011 to a place where we are America’s Finest City because the social capital in this town helps us make better collective decisions with the challenges we face.  And there’s no time better than now as we elect our next mayor!

Our Compass

Here at HDH & Associates, LLC, we are starting this blog on “Citizen Leadership.”  This is where we want to engage in thoughtful conversation about what it means to be a citizen—at home, at work, in private, in public—and what it takes to lead citizens.  It is our fundamental belief that thinking about citizenship is central to what makes individuals and entities responsible, and each of our personal reflections on the idea of citizenship is the prerequisite for being agile and strategic.

Our belief is that this phenomenological sense of “being a citizen” and “citizenship” are not just legal constructs and a passive characterization of someone’s or some entity’s existence, but rather revolve around norms of social cohesion.  Said more simply, but clumsily, citizenship is about how we as social beings invest in social bonds to make society work.

From a negative standpoint, this shared sense is why we decry

  • Enron’s executives cheating
  • Military prison abuses at Abu Ghraib
  • Political gridlock in Washington, DC (the shutdown and impending debate on the debt limit is on the forefront of our attention)
  • Our neighbors who show no consideration to others
  • Our careerist workmates only in it for themselves.

From a positive standpoint, this shared sense is why we celebrate

  • Corporate giving
  • Military service
  • Political leaders who got us through the toughest times
  • Our neighbors who pick up our mail and watch our houses while we’re gone
  • Our workmates who are teammates.

In this blog, we’re going to start this conversation on citizenship because it seems we, as a society, may have either lost a shared sense of or have lost agreement on the importance of citizenship.  And it’s important we talk about this because it’s this sense that allows us to work together for shared purposes, whether they be to address a social ail for a non-profit, provide services to constituents for a government office, or provide a valuable product or service that someone will pay money for to a private sector entity.

We promise to bring in interesting research and the occasional controversial thought.  We promise to keep this approachable.  Most important, we promise to make this useful to you, those with whom you interact, and your organization.