Strategic Planning: The Path to Success


To paraphrase the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”

There is arguably no better way to describe why strategic planning and organizational vision matters. And it is as true for businesses and government agencies as it was for Alice.

Strategic planning is the process of envisioning a desired future and translating that vision into a series of goals, objectives and ultimately tasks to help you achieve that vision. Strategic planning can help put you on the road to success.

For federal government leaders, the need for strategic planning was so critical that it was put into law. The United States Code, section 306 specifies: “the head of each agency shall submit to the Director of the office of Management and Budget and to Congress a strategic plan for program activities.” Even our most senior leadership recognizes the value of strategic planning, as evidenced by the Malcolm Baldridge National Quality Award (MBNQA), presented by the annually by the President of the United States Army Community of Excellence award presented by the Secretary of the Army each year.

Strategic plans take different forms, and each organization and business must develop a plan that works for them and their employees. One plan worth highlighting is that of Amtrak Railway. This plan is an excellent example of a strategic document. It serves as Amtrak’s roadmap to the future, allowing them to be forward-thinking and develop a business path, instead of responsive to emergent events and crisis management. Amtrak’s plan codifies for its employees what the company’s goals and objectives are across the enterprise. It empowers the workforce by connecting what they do day-to-day with where the company is heading.

So how do you get there?

The first step is to examine strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT). This will help craft define the mission of the organization. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers South Pacific Division (SPD) took our senior leaders to an off-site location for the annual strategic planning event. This helped eliminate distractions and focus everyone on the strategic planning process. We identified some of our strengths as a technically competent workforce with an innovative culture and can do attitude. Our weaknesses were a high number of personnel vacancies, high operating costs and a slow hiring process (many of our employees are eligible to retire without a trained replacement ready to move into their shoes). Our opportunities included taking over the Department of Veterans Affairs construction program, sustainability, and public – private partnerships. The threats were other agencies that did similar work such as the Government Services Administration (GSA), declining budgets, and the rising cost of living in California.

Based on our SWOT analysis we came up with a unique SPD mission, “Deliver vital engineering solutions throughout the Pacific Southwest, in collaboration with our partners, to secure our Nation, energize our economy, and reduce risk from disaster.” The mission statement is short and easy for employees to remember. It provides a central focus toward which all employees will work, cutting through the clutter of some of the “busy” work that many organizations fall victim to. It provides a guideline to determine priorities – activities that do not contribute to accomplishing the mission should be curtailed or eliminated.

The SWOT analysis helps identify the current state of an organization. The next step is to determine where the organization wants to be five – ten – twenty years down the road. This helps develop the vision statement. The vision statement defines what the business or government agency aspires to become. SPDs vision is “Engineering solutions for the Nation’s toughest challenges throughout the Pacific Southwest.”

The third step is to identify and prioritize short-term – one to one-and-a-half years — and long-term — three to five years in the future. These objectives must be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time constrained (SMART). SPD developed an Implementation plan with four goals: Support National Security, Deliver Integrated Water Resource Solutions, Reduce Disaster Risks and Prepare for Tomorrow. Each goal has objectives with metrics that are tracked on a quarterly basis. According to the Strategic Solutions Group in an ideal situation, 80 percent of an organization’s effort is focused on the vision, mission, and objectives. The remaining 20 percent of your effort is focused on crisis management.

The successful implementation of a strategic plan also depends on communication. The organizational vision must be communicated throughout the entire organization – up, down and across. This enables the conditions, attitudes, and expectations to facilitate positive change. Both management and employees must understand the organization’s objectives, how they contribute to them and how they fit into the bigger picture. Communication should be clear, concise and tailored to the various audiences; it matters more who understands it than who communicates it. Publicly recognizing and celebrating short-term wins help cement the vision and make it part of the organizational culture.

The bottom line is that strategic planning can set an organization on the right path to realize its vision. It will enable a company or individual to obtain a competitive advantage. Through strategic planning, organizational leaders can define where they want to go and how they want to get there.

Stewart Fearon is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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