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Four Steps to Creating a Successful Strategic Plan

Make them concise, focused on achievable outcomes, and based on assumptions that can be tested regularly

Federal agencies are currently preparing their plans and objectives for the next four years. Department level agencies must submit their initial draft strategic plans to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for review by June 2. They’ll send final plans to OMB for clearance on December 22.

Government leaders have complained that past strategic plans have been long and unwieldy. They also often lack clarity about an organization’s ambition, and how it’s going to achieve it. One director said “the document itself is just a description of what the organization does – more like an advertisement.”

Less is most certainly more when it comes to strategic planning. Many organizations, like the Illinois Department of Innovation & Technology, put their strategy on a single page to make their plans concise and focused on outcomes (CEB offers a template for this).

And in the current environment of the US public sector, the need for focused and actionable strategic planning is critical. Many federal agencies are facing significant budget cuts and a mandate to do more with less, which means there’s never been a better time to improve the quality of strategic plans and how they’re communicated to the broader organization.

Four Steps

There are four key steps that go into building an actionable strategic plan. These steps can apply to strategic plans at any level of an organization – they’re not exclusive to department-level strategic plans.

  1. Identify up to seven metrics that best describe the target state of your organization: Use these metrics to track the progress of your organization from the current state to the future state. For example, some organizations track customer satisfaction scores or the percentage of customers using a certain service.

    To do this, calculate (or estimate) their value on day one of the strategy implementation period and their target outcome for the end of the period. Defining metrics is critical for making sure that your strategic plan is actionable and that you can observe progress over time.

  2. Identify up to seven key initiatives required to move from the current state to the future state: Don’t include initiatives that perpetuate the current state (such as “maintain employee engagement”). Initiatives should strive to change the organization, helping it progress from the current state to the future state.

    Senior managers should reconcile conflicting views – and build a consensus about the result – to select the right set of initiatives. This process helps you stay focused on the most valuable initiatives, which is critical in a time of resource constraints.

  3. Craft a concise statement that captures the essence of the strategy: Strive for a single, aspirational sentence, such as “successfully plan and execute migration to the shared services provider by 2020.” But be willing to sacrifice brevity for clarity. Capturing the essential elements is more important than selecting the correct phrasing.

    You can include up to seven essential elements in your statement. The simplicity and clarity captured in the statement can help guide others in your organization. This helps complement the rest of the strategic plan.

  4. Document the seven most critical beliefs or assumptions on which the strategy relies: Only 35% of government finance leaders state that their agency documents strategic assumptions. Yet, they’re essential to any strategy. These are beliefs about the future, based on internal and external conditions, which underpin the strategic plan. For example, you might state that a new initiative will allow you to drive improvements in customer satisfaction year over year.

    Define up to seven assumptions that are explicit and communicated to the broader organization. They should also be concrete, quantifiable when appropriate, and allow to be changed as external forces dictate (an assumption about how many people will use a service may change due to a period of worse-than-expected weather, for example, or the relocation of a large local employer). This ensures that the strategic plan remains attainable and actionable.

The Magic Number Seven

Observant readers will have noticed a pattern here. Each component consists of up to seven items because the average person can hold around seven items in working memory at a given time. This finding influenced the decision to make US phone numbers seven digits long (excluding area codes), for example.

This is an important concept to keep in mind when creating your strategic plan. Since the strategy will be shared with many people in your organization, it’s important that the strategy is easy to remember.


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