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9 Steps to Successful Functional Strategic Planning

July 11, 2022

Contributor: Jackie Wiles

Take these steps to ensure your strategic planning process is productive, adaptable and tied to enterprise goals.

In short: 

  • Pivots in strategic plans now happen with increasing frequency, and functional leaders must keep up.

  • Aim to create and communicate a clear action plan that states where the function currently is, where it needs to be, how to get there and how you will measure progress.

  • Even once the strategic plan is adopted, revisit it regularly to ensure it remains valid — and adapt as needed to changing scenarios and business conditions.

Seventy-six percent of corporate strategy leaders say significant pivots to strategic plans now happen with increasing frequency. While functional leaders should never develop strategic plans in a vacuum, today’s disruptions — from price and wage inflation to risks related to Russia's invasion of Ukraine — make it especially critical for functional strategic plans to account for a variety of scenarios and be able to change with pivots in enterprise strategy.

“The key is to abide by some key principles of any strategic planning process — whether at the enterprise, business-unit or functional levels,” says Marc Kelly, VP at Gartner. “Eliminate everything that isn't necessary and sufficient to communicate an effective strategy.” 

Download now: Build a Better Strategic Plan for Your Function

Commit to being strategic-minded

Before you even start your functional planning process, commit to keeping a strategic mindset. Don’t allow yourself to be hijacked by short-termism, tactical execution plans and other check-the-box activities. All too often, concerns about meeting short-term targets, fear of failure and a preoccupation with operational issues overwhelm aspiration. 

This principle applies to your mindset on cost management and budgeting. Commit to a strategic approach wherever and whenever you decide which initiatives to pursue and fund. 

View your function’s cost architecture through the lens of business value, and view cost optimization as a continuous discipline focused on directing resources (time, capabilities and budget) to differentiating growth initiatives, such as digitalization. Be clear on the best budgeting approach(es) for your function’s needs, considering what type of purpose-driven budgeting best supports your strategy execution.

Download now: Your Guide to Optimizing Costs Strategically, Not Tactically

Then take a methodical step-by-step approach

The best functional plans identify select initiatives that will drive enterprise ambitions and commit the capacity (time, budget, talent and technology) necessary to execute successfully. These nine steps provide a guide by which functional leaders can ensure a rigorous approach to planning, however adaptive their enterprise’s strategy.

Step 1: Outline expectations 

Clearly define the enterprise and business context upfront for all stakeholders to prevent managers and executives from misunderstanding one another and derailing the process. 

Outline for your function the responsibilities, process timelines and expected outcomes for each participant, especially in cases where the planning and budgeting processes cross functions. Identify which stakeholder(s) will ultimately sign off on your strategy and budget plans.

Step 2: Verify the business context 

Confirm:

  • Enterprise mission, which defines your organization’s reason for being and the goals it will continually pursue. 

    • Example: One electric-car maker’s mission “to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy” reflects its absolute commitment to moving toward sustainable practices and reminds employees of the company’s broader purpose.

  • Enterprise vision, which embodies the organization’s abstract but realistic aspirations, including underlying values, principles and beliefs that support its decision-making processes.

    • Example: One aerospace company’s vision “to be the premier international defense, aerospace and security company” is realistic and more alluring than the status quo. It is directional and focused.

Make sure your function’s employees know how the mission and vision apply to their specific work. Be clear what impact business priorities, challenges and pivots will have on your function’s imperatives, opportunities, risks and priorities.

Step 3: Set goals and objectives

Enterprise strategy translates business aspirations into:

  • Goals: Individual or combined undertakings that, when achieved, drive differentiated value in the longer term.

    • Example: Become the largest supplier of renewable electricity in Europe.

  • Objectives: Discrete and measurable steps that describe how you will achieve a specific goal (see step 4 for the actions required for this).

    • Example: Increase wind capacity by 200% overall in three years with 10 new wind farms across five regions in Europe.

Once clear on the enterprise plan, you can evaluate the current state of your functional activities, identify the future state, and set goals and objectives accordingly.

Step 4: Develop an action plan

This is the stage at which you take your general assessment of goals and objectives and translate them into detailed action steps with assigned responsibilities. This functional action plan should be a formal document that summarizes the sequence of steps or initiatives required to attain an objective. This is the primary source of information for how you will execute, monitor, control and close out objectives.

Action plans are subject to change as surprise events occur, so be prepared to respond with an adaptive strategy.

Step 5: Assess your capabilities 

Identify key functional capabilities required to execute on your action plan. Ask business partners to assess how they perceive your function’s strengths and weaknesses. Your assessment and that of your business partners should broadly align. Regardless, generate a prioritized list of functional capabilities to bolster or gaps to fill as a result of your findings.

Step 6: Set measures and metrics

The terms measure and metric are often used interchangeably, but they are different.

  • A measure is an observable business outcome (for example, employee engagement). Measures allow you to evaluate the efficacy of your action plans. Agree on them in advance to avoid reporting biases.

  • A metric describes the actual data collected to quantify the measure (say, percentage of “satisfied” employees according to an annual survey).

Make sure measures and metrics are complete enough to account for a range of variables. For example, don’t only use customer satisfaction to measure engagement. Also track critical factors, such as discretionary effort and intent to stay.

Step 7: Put your strategy on one — yes, one — page

Simply and clearly state the key elements of your strategic plan: where the functional organization is, where it is going and how it will get to the future state. 

Capture an overview on a single page that communicates how you are adding value today and demonstrates how you plan to impact the business over the next year. Include a statement of strategy, a before-and-after description of the state of your function, one or two critical assumptions underpinning the strategy, and five to seven initiatives required to meet the functional objectives established to support business goals.

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Step 8: Drive the plan home

Do this by evangelizing the objectives and strategy across your function and company. The one-page strategy template is a helpful tool, as it makes the plan easy for others to consume, but you’ll still need a deliberate process for communicating the plan — and ensuring that key constituencies understand and agree with it. 

You must develop a clear and consistent message that drives buy-in and commitment among functional leadership and engagement and motivation among the workforce, with all stakeholders clear on how your priorities are changing and why.

Step 9: Prepare to respond to change

Once the strategic plan is adopted and shared, it’s critical to measure progress against the objectives, revisit and monitor the plan to ensure it remains valid, and adapt the strategy as business conditions change. To do this:

  • Monitor triggers to track the effectiveness of the strategic plan.

  • Cancel underperforming projects quickly.

  • Track and validate assumptions periodically. 

Lastly, make sure you have an agreed-upon action plan for specific steps to take or decisions to make to increase the chances of success when monitoring triggers an alarm.

This article has been updated annually to reflect new events, conditions and research.

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