Strategic planning in 5 steps

28 October 2021 by National Bank
Image of a team of employees and leaders starting the strategic planning process.

Strategic planning is a very useful tool to help you achieve your business objectives and stand out from your competitors. No matter the size of your company, the process will equip you with an action plan to guide you in the coming years. We'll explain exactly what a strategic plan is, its advantages and how to put it into action. 

What is strategic planning?

Strategic planning is taking time to think about business opportunities, determine where your business is now and where you want to take it. The strategic planning process will result in a plan that will guide you in achieving your business objectives. A strategic plan includes:

  • Actions to take 
  • Steps
  • Timelines
  • How you'll monitor progress

Reminder: Strategic planning should be used at all stages of a business's lifecycle (start-up and periods of growth or significant change). Strategic planning is useful even when business is going great and you're experiencing growth. To keep up momentum, you must take a clear position and stick to the plan   

The advantages of strategic planning 

Here's why taking the time and effort to draw up a strategic plan is worth your while. 

  • Improve productivity and efficiency: Your strategic plan will help you to optimize all your company's resources. It can also facilitate decision-making and help you avoid making mistakes. 
  • Open the door to growth: By detailing the steps to achieving your objectives, you'll be in a better position to take action (acquire a new business, buy equipment, etc.). It's one of the tools you can use to grow your business
  • Be more competitive: You'll be better prepared to deal with the unexpected and seize new opportunities. You can choose the best drivers of growth, complete your current offering, develop new markets, determine future growth segments, and better position yourself relative to the competition.
  • Innovate: The plan will help your company maintain or create a culture of innovation by finding ways to do things differently. It can also help you turn towards new activity sectors.
  • Unify and strengthen your teams: The plan will help you develop a shared vision and clearly communicate to employees what your objectives are and how to achieve them. 
  • Take a step back: Step back from the daily whirlwind to think and make changes, if necessary. 

Good to know: A strategic plan isn't a business plan

A strategic plan shouldn't be confused with a business plan, but the two plans do complement each other. A business plan allows you to understand how your business works day to day and what must be done to properly manage it. A strategic plan helps you to look ahead. It explains how you'll achieve your goals and make your vision a reality.

What are the 5 steps of strategic planning?

1- Get prepared and carry out the preliminary assessment

Build a team

Starting a strategic planning exercise on solid footing requires the right people. You'll need some stakeholders who are creative and others who have a solid understanding of how your business operates. Of course, to maximize your chances for success, the company head and its leaders need to participate and support the process. It's not only the leaders who should be taking part. Key employees should also be involved. Designate the people who'll be in charge. They'll be responsible for documenting activities and consolidating everything.

Pro tip: Consider hiring an external consultant to help with your strategic planning. An experienced person with no vested interest in the business can help simplify your task, push you out of your comfort zone, and make the process run more smoothly. 

Get away from daily distractions

Make sure that when your key people meet, they're able to leave their daily tasks behind for a while. To bring the group together and give them time to focus, they could meet off the company premises (e.g., a retreat). Expert advice: Preparatory work before the meeting can help to generate new ideas. Participants could spend some time beforehand thinking about what will be discussed so they have ideas to share with the group when they meet.

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Analyze the foundations

To lay a solid foundation on which to build in the coming years, review the company's mission, vision and values. This will help ensure that decisions made during the strategic planning are aligned with what the company stands for.

Examine previous strategic plans

If there was a previous strategic plan, take the time to review it and do a strategic analysis to see what you can learn from it. Understanding what worked and what didn't will be very useful for building a new, more solid plan. 

2- Diagnose and seize opportunities

When you reach the second step, ask yourself these questions:

  • What are the company's strengths and weaknesses?
  • What business opportunities should we seize?
  • What potential obstacles are there?
  • How do we mitigate risk?

Gather all the relevant information to help you answer the questions. You could ask all employees, regardless of their level, to send you their thoughts and impressions. Once you've received them all, take their answers into account during the strategic planning process. Next, you might consider:

  • Analyzing the characteristics of current and future clients
  • Reviewing your supplier accounts
  • Checking whether the payment conditions meet industry standards
  • Examining company productivity
  • Determining whether you have enough employees to successfully carry out your new projects
  • Thinking about who your clients are, what they want, and how to meet their needs
  • Anticipating the expectations and needs of future clients

When you've completed the diagnosis, you can design strategies that are better adapted and well-thought-out. You'll be in a better position to solve the problems you've identified and change your methods, if necessary. You'll also be better prepared to seize the opportunities that arise and achieve the goals you've set. 

3- Prioritize based on diagnostics

Diagnostics help you to establish a clear vision for the company and determine the resulting objectives. To achieve them, you must break the vision down into several strategic orientations. Based on the objectives, choose the relevant areas of development that the company will prioritize. Next, establish the sequence of concrete actions to carry out and set timelines. The number of actions and the pace are important things to consider.  It's better to have fewer objectives and carry out your actions properly than to have too much to do and discourage your employees.

Generally, a strategic plan is carried out over a 2- to 3-year period. Beyond this time (e.g., 5 years), too many unknowns like the markets and new, rapidly evolving technologies could jeopardize the plan.

Pro tip: At this stage, look at the choices made by the managers and employees. Communication and feedback will increase the chances of employees buying in.

Now the time has finally come to draft your strategic planning document.

4- Establish the budget and necessary resources

The financial aspects are key to achieving your objectives. The document detailing the plan must therefore:

  • Put a cost to the required investments
  • Project the financial returns
  • Determine the necessary resources
  • Plan how you'll get the resources
  • Set the budget

5- Implement the plan and respect timelines

The final step in your strategic planning: do what's necessary to put the plan into action. Follow up regularly on the actions and projects currently being carried out (e.g., budgets). This is an ongoing process: Be flexible, stay up to date on the market and any changes (technological, demographic, etc.) so you can make any adjustments. Remember that when the strategic plan comes to life, it can continue to evolve.

For short-term action plans (up to 1 year), opt for monthly follow-ups. For long-term plans over 3–10 years, follow up monthly, quarterly, and annually.

Pro tip: Consider creating a dashboard to make it easier to follow up and monitor progress.

Good to know: There are many approaches to strategic planning, such as the 3-C method (client, competition, company), the lean approach, the mission-based approach, or a combination of the three. No matter which you decide on, the exercise will help you take your company to the next level.

Strategic planning is a powerful business development tool. The process will serve to establish a plan that maximizes your chances for success. It will also help you stay the course when the going gets tough. Feel free to ask for advice or support from an expert. We’re here to answer your questions. 

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