Accelerating Strategic Planning: An Introduction to the Roadmap Strategy Process

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Paul Niven

Does your organization have a strategic plan?

I’m sure you’re nodding your head in the affirmative at that simple question, so let’s try another: If you played a role in the development of the plan, were you satisfied with the process employed?

Is your head moving now? How about one more question: Do you use your strategic plan to make major decisions at your organization?


If you’re like most people your head will be quite still at this point because research shows that a majority of people are not satisfied with the strategic planning process used at their organization, and fewer than a quarter say they use the strategic plan to make major strategic decisions.1

Given the countless hours logged in pursuit of creating differentiating strategies that will lead to sustained success, isn’t it vital that the output of such intense labor actually be used for its intended purpose? So why is that not the case?

Issues with the Strategic Planning Process

As a consultant I’ve had the chance to review legions of so-called strategic plans over the years, and while the problems that plague the process are varied, I’ve detected four critical flaws that consistently conspire to derail many planning efforts. Each is outlined below.

1. The first issue I’ve discovered with many strategic plans is their dearth of true strategy. Making choices is at the heart of strategy—determining what to do, and perhaps more importantly what not to do—when facing a universe of potential options to pursue.

Unfortunately many organizations either neglect to consider this or perhaps (my cynical side here) simply choose to ignore it because it’s too difficult an assignment, and therefore wind up creating what Peter Drucker once labeled "A Hero Sandwich of Good Intentions."2

In other words the "plan" is a languid recitation of every good and noble thing the organization dreams of accomplishing. Executing such a plan is rendered virtually impossible.

There are simply too many options, too many roads to travel, and thus stymied by indecision, organizations simply trod the comfortable path of the old and familiar, frustrating employees starving for direction as they face decisions on the front lines of the business.

2. At the other end of the spectrum are those organizations producing strategies better suited to a game of "buzzword bingo" than to providing a clear and direct response to their environment. For example, "Our strategy is to provide leading-edge, world-class products by capitalizing on synergistic opportunities that will catapult us from good to great."

Are your eyes rolling at that sentence? How can employees possibly be expected to act on such a sugary-sweet concoction of popular jargon? The short answer: They can’t.

3. Engaging in strategic planning requires a commitment to both the rational analysis of quantitative data and a thorough investigation of underlying business and environmental conditions.

However, for many organizations the pendulum has swung decisively to the side of number-crunching and remains fixed there, with little if any attention paid to the "softer" side of strategic planning: challenging assumptions underlying long-held beliefs, examining the environment and making judgment calls.

While hard numbers will always play a role in the composition of a strategy, they are ill-equipped on their own to forge a sustainable path forward.

4. A final, and very pernicious, issue with many strategic planning efforts is the simple inability of many organizations to define the word strategy. I challenge you to ask five people within your ranks to define the term for you.

My bet is that you’ll receive five different answers ranging from: specific tactics to long-range goals to everything in between.

In order to create a compelling strategy, the very first imperative is defining the term so that all involved are able to channel their energies in creating an outcome that will be shared, understood and acted upon by your entire team.

I describe strategy as "The broad priorities adopted by an organization in recognition of its operating environment and in pursuit of its mission."

A Bridge to Better Strategy

Allow me to squeeze in one additional issue, one that led me to developing the Roadmap Strategy process. For over a decade I have been consulting in the Balanced Scorecard field. The balanced scorecard was developed as a tool for organizations to execute their unique strategies by translating it into objectives and measures in four related perspectives: Financial, Customer, Internal Processes, Employee Learning and Growth.

However, over the years many organizations have answered my question, "Why do you want to develop a Balanced Scorecard," with what seemed to them a very logical response: "To develop our strategy."

But in fact that is not a logical response, because again, the balanced scorecard was designed to facilitate the execution of strategy, not its formation.

Digging deeper to examine why any organization would turn to the scorecard as a means to craft strategy led to my discovery of the issues enumerated above, and started me on my quest to create a simple yet robust framework for developing strategy that would lead to improved plans and effective balanced scorecards.

Over the next several years I reviewed hundreds of strategic plans, scoured the literature from the likes of Porter, Mintzberg, Raynor, Kim and Mauborgne, and many others, all the while constantly asking myself what core elements appeared again and again—what represented the "DNA" of effective strategic planning?

There are literally hundreds of approaches to strategic planning, but my investigation yielded a set of questions that appeared in one form or another in virtually all of the materials I discovered.

Those core questions came to form the basis of Roadmap Strategy, a process I documented in my newest book, and first management fable, Roadmaps and Revelations: Finding the Road to Business Success on Route 101. As you can see, the process draws its name from the book’s title.

Roadmap Strategy

The diagram below provides an overview of my process—you’ll see four fundamental strategy questions, and on the outer ring of the diagram you’ll find what I call the four ‘lenses,’ each of which will assist you in answering the fundamental strategy questions.

At the center of the diagram is the word Mission, and it is the starting point of Roadmap Strategy.

Mission and Strategy—A Critical Link

A Mission Statement outlines your organization’s reason for being as an organization, why you exist beyond making money, which for any profit-seeking enterprise, is a given.

Recall from above that strategy outlines the broad priorities you’ll adopt in recognition of your operating environment, and in pursuit of your mission. In other words, the mission guides the development of strategy by acting as a beacon for your work. Additionally, the mission can be used by your senior leadership team to explain the relevance of strategic decisions, outlining how strategic choices align with your ultimate purpose as an organization.

The Four Fundamental Questions You Must Answer When Creating a Strategy

Let’s briefly review each of the four questions, beginning with the first:

1. What propels us forward?

At this very moment your organization is being propelled in some direction by a force put in place through years of decisions made on everything from how you allocate your financial resources to who you hire to how you employ technology.

What propels you forward represents, in many ways, your corporate identity. Most organizations will typically be propelled by one of six forces:

  1. Products and services
  2. Customers and markets
  3. Capacity or capabilities
  4. Technology
  5. Sales and distribution channels
  6. Raw materials

In order to truly capitalize on this principle you must commit to one driving force for your organization and align your resources around that decision.

2. What do we sell?

Regardless of which of the six areas propels you forward as an organization, you must sell something, some mix of products or services, to your customers in order to keep your business alive.

The challenge inherent in this question is making the critical determination of which products and services you’ll place more emphasis on in the future, and which you’ll place less emphasis on.

3. Who are our customers?

When determining to whom you’ll sell, you are once again faced with a choice: which customer groups (and geographies) do we place more emphasis on in the future, and which deserve less of our attention?

The first step in answering this question is acquiring a clear understanding of your current group of customers by reviewing standard metrics such as: customer satisfaction, loyalty, profitability by customer group, retention and market share.

It’s also vital to experience things from your customers’ point of view in order to glean insights not visible from within the walls of your corporate headquarters.

4. How do we sell?

This is perhaps the most crucial of the four questions, as it determines what experts might call your "value proposition." In other words, how do you add value for customers, or to put it even simpler: Why would anyone buy from you?

Despite the importance of the question, the choices awaiting you are limited and basic: you can either attempt to offer the lowest total cost of ownership to your customers, or you can put forth a differentiated product or service by focusing on creating the best product (additional features, technology, etc.) or ensuring the best experience (outstanding customer service, building long-term relationships).

The Four Lenses

On the outer ring of the Roadmap Strategy diagram you’ll find what I call "the four lenses." Think of each of these as just that, a lens through which to consider the question you’re pondering, or a different perspective to adopt as you deliberate on your alternatives.

A Strategy to Create True Alignment from Top to Bottom

If you were to ask a group of CEOs what they most desire for their company it’s a safe bet that many would discuss their pursuit of alignment, getting everyone—from top to bottom—rallied around a core strategy and its execution.

But for any person in an organization, from the executive suite to the shipping room floor, to be aligned with the organization’s direction they must first understand specifically where the organization is headed and why they’ve chosen that course.

Flawed strategic planning processes, with their blind devotion to numbers and reluctance to true strategic choice render that knowledge practically impossible.

Roadmap Strategy, on the other hand, focuses on the fundamentals of strategy and the result is a simple statement, often just a paragraph in length that clearly articulates what the organization is about, what it sells, to whom and how.

Armed with this precise information, employees can make more informed decisions relating to scarce resources and align themselves in a common purpose towards the mission.

And as Sun Tzu reminded us over 2,000 years ago: "He whose ranks are united in purpose will be victorious."

1. "How to Improve Strategic Planning," McKinsey Quartly, Aug 2007
Managing the Nonprofit Organization, Peter F. Drucker