Examining the annual strategic planning activity through the client’s lens
By Amy Bingham
It’s December, and chances are your organization is in the midst of finalizing budgets and developing the company’s strategic plan for 2012. And through it all, you may be thinking, this is an exercise in futility. By second quarter, we forget what we said we wanted to do. Another year of pouring over the data, analyzing the economic trends and struggling through how you’re going to increase revenue, hold margins and make more profit.
If yours is like most firms, the senior leadership team sits in a room for a couple of days; the business leader puts a revenue number in front of the team that leaves mouths hanging open. Then the team hammers out the objectives for hitting that number. Then, after more lively discussion and several iterations, the team aligns and finalizes the grand master strategic plan. Finally, if the whole proceeding somehow concludes on schedule, the plan is unveiled to the rest of the organization in a late-January town hall meeting.
Am I close?
Most companies follow this inward-focused model for completing the annual strategic planning process. Beyond documenting the vision and mission (which typically gets the least air time), it becomes about the big number and how we can meet it. In essence, it’s all about us.
Don’t get me wrong. Clearly our very existence depends on our ability to increase revenue and profit year after year. But if that’s all we’re focused on, are we missing an opportunity on this exercise in which we invest so much brain power and energy each year?
Consider this: What if our strategic planning process was also about meeting our buyer’s needs? What if we first seek to understand what’s really on their minds, and then invest energy working to develop solutions to their talent acquisition and management problems — and in the process creating a stronger value proposition for our firm?
Do today’s companies, leaner than ever before, need a service we haven’t yet thought of, or have dismissed because it’s “non-core” for us?
Outsourcing models come closest to this creative line of thinking. RPO and MSP service offerings force us to develop a customized methodology for solving the unique staffing pain point of our customer. If it’s front-end sourcing that’s their problem, we brainstorm until we craft the best solution for sourcing optimal talent for that organization — even if that means sub-contracting sourcing to an offshore firm that enables us to boast that we recruit “24/7.” If it’s keeping their seats filled, we design an elaborate onboarding process complete with custom orientation guides that promises to reduce turnover and attrition, and the solution we bring to the table for the buyer reflects the investment of time and energy we gave that particular issue.
Obtaining Clients’ Perspective
Let’s assume you like this idea and you want to broaden the strategic planning exercise in your firm to include the buyer’s perspective. How do you go about gathering the right intelligence before your internal team meets for the annual planning session? Here’s my four-step plan.
1. Survey your clients. The methodology you use is less important than ensuring you ask the right questions of a representative sample. Whether you call them, send an email or e-survey, use your website, blog or another form of social media, keep the process simple and you’re likely to get more input. Ask them what they really need in a staffing partner. What they tell you will help determine if there is a gap between what they say they need and where your organization focuses its efforts.
For example, if they say they can’t find enough qualified people, it suggests that the available pool of talent doesn’t have the skills to meet their needs, and they’re likely losing productivity — and revenue — as a result. If enough of your clients give you similar feedback, maybe your firm should spend some time at the strategic planning session brainstorming how to re-tool the workforce rather than pour more resources into the recruiting team with the hope your company will do a better job finding the needle in the haystack among the unemployed. Could one of your strategic initiatives now be to proactively seek out an alliance with a trade school to train people for the type of work your client has to get done to be successful?
2. Consider creating a customer advisory board inviting your best clients, large and small, to the table to brainstorm the most common hindrances to employee productivity. (Just make sure something is in it for them to entice them to give you their precious time.) Armed with the top three most pressing human capital concerns from a representative sample of buyers, you’ll feel more confident when the internal team meets that the growth strategies you develop for next year are aligned with what’s most important to your buyers now.
3. Consider inviting an independent subject matter expert to attend your team’s strategy session to lend perspective. For example, if your survey feedback indicates more of your clients are interested in outsourcing non-core functions, you might seek out an outsourcing expert to attend your meeting and ask the individual to come prepared to provide insight into current trends and buyer preferences. You’ll get some objective feedback on your own ideas and may learn what competitors in the space are doing.
4. Ask your front-line associates for their thoughts before the senior team meets. They’re closest to the buyer and will give you the straight skinny, insulating the team against ivory tower thinking that can result when those who talk with the company’s buyers every day aren’t in the room for the strategic planning brainstorming sessions.
Once you have the strategy outlined, your next charge is to bring it to life. This is where many firms get sidelined. Drafting the plan is the easy part; key initiatives take time and resources to launch.
The best defensive measure against work not getting done is taking a proactive stance during the planning phase. Your planning session should include discussions around how the key initiatives you develop will be implemented. The most critical questions to contemplate are who will do what, and by when? Who will own vetting potential trade school partners to align with to support your “re-tool the workforce” initiative? Who will research RPO models and gather the best practices before you launch that RPO service offering?
Spending energy on planning the execution during the planning phase helps the team identify resource gaps early in the game. If there is no internal resource with the capacity to drive the initiative, it won’t get done. And if it doesn’t get done, planning for it becomes an exercise in futility. This is why you roll your eyes when you receive the meeting request to attend the annual strategic planning meeting! Has this happened in the past? Make this year different.
If you want better outcomes from your strategic planning work, don’t do the same old same old — or you’ll get results that are, well, same old same old. Broaden the exercise to direct the team’s energy not just inward, but outward by capturing the buyer’s perspective before the meeting. If you want to go to market with a value proposition that trumps your competitors, you have to first understand what’s on the minds of your buyers today and work to solve their business challenges.
Amy Bingham is managing partner of Bingham Consulting Professionals LLC. An industry veteran, she advises staffing firms in the area of sales effectiveness through strategic planning, strategy execution and performance coaching. She can be reached at email@example.com.