The 5 Essential Elements of Strategic Planning
This is the first article in a six-part series on how to approach the Strategic Planning Process for your organization.
As students across the country return to class, it’s also time for K-12 ed-tech executives to put on their “thinking caps” and begin the important process of establishing the strategic plan for the upcoming calendar year. The decisions that you make during this time, and the clarity and focus you provide to your organization, will be the foundation for your success—or failure—over the next twelve months.
Although most companies engage in some sort of strategic planning process, there is a multitude of different frameworks and terminologies that companies use when establishing and managing their strategic plan. These nuanced differences—much like local dialects—can make it difficult for leaders to communicate, collaborate and operate the business effectively.
In this article, I will outline the structure I’ve used to successfully lead company strategic planning processes during my career. Subsequent articles in this series will offer additional context on how to operate successfully within this framework.
Ultimately, a strategic planning process should shine the spotlight on the activities most likely to lead to company success, set expectations for what needs to be accomplished, and block out the distraction of non-strategic activities. The five components of this approach are: Company Vision, Strategic Priorities, Goals, Objectives and Key Initiatives.
Typically articulated by the CEO, the Company Vision describes the future state of the organization and shows employees, investors and customers what success will look and feel like. A well-articulated vision connects employees to a greater purpose and helps them visualize the impact they will have through their work.
It’s important that executives, middle managers and individual contributors can all fluently articulate the company vision in a consistent manner. In high-growth ed-tech organizations where speed-to-market and cost efficiencies are key, it is essential that every team member has a clear understanding of your ultimate destination.
Remember: The Company Vision creates a clear picture of where your company is headed.
Establishing a clear Strategy will help focus the organization’s energy on the actions that will lead to accomplishing your Vision. Companies typically conduct a SWOT analysis or similar kind of exercise to identify the most pressing issues to be addressed by the company. The result is a small number (three to five) of Strategic Priorities. Examples of Strategic Priorities include targeting a particular market opportunity, addressing a weakness and driving innovation.
Operating efficacy requires focus and discipline. While there’s never a shortage of issues and opportunities that compete for our attention, a clearly articulated set of Strategic Priorities will help ensure that your teams’ efforts are aligned on the activities having the greatest impact on achieving your Vision.
When articulating your Strategic Priorities, they should be listed in a ranked order (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.). This provides employees with clarity, so that when “push comes to shove,” they understand what work can be rescoped vs. what absolutely must be accomplished as planned.
Establishing Strategic Priorities is more difficult than one may think, and it requires a strong understanding of what factors will make the greatest impact on the business. Without establishing Strategic Priorities, your company risks falling into a scenario where “everything is important” and your strategy doesn’t receive the leverage it requires.
Remember: Strategic Priorities determine how you will focus the business.
Organizations measure the success of their Strategic Priorities by setting Goals. Often set in one-year, two-year or three-year increments, Goals are not typically defined by a singular action or activity. Instead, they are the measure of numerous efforts intended to support your Strategic Priorities. Some examples could include Annual Recurring Revenue (ARR), customer-retention percentage, student academic gains, amount of instructional content delivered, or brand-awareness levels. Avoid setting Goals that are simply deadline driven. Set Goals that measure the anticipated impact of the team’s efforts and use the SMART goal concept when possible.
There should be strong connective tissue between your Strategic Priorities and your Goals. If you have established a Goal that doesn’t explicitly tie to one of your Strategic Priorities, you may want to question whether you’re focusing on the right things. Conversely, Strategic Priorities that are left “floating” without any Goals attached to them are unlikely to see success.
Remember: Goals identify the outcomes you expect your Strategic Priorities to achieve.
In order to accomplish your Goals, the organization must identify the Objectives and activities that will drive the desired outcomes. For example, suppose your company is implementing a strategy to expand its market share, and one of its Goals is to reach 115% Net Revenue Retention (NRR). In order to accomplish this NRR goal, the company’s Objectives might include ensuring that 90% of new customers are onboarded within 30 days, or increasing expansion dollars by 20% within a certain segment of accounts.
Objectives should be specific, time-sensitive outcomes that are the building blocks that must be put in place this year in order to achieve the company’s Goals. These are outcomes-driven and typically occur as yearlong measures, sometimes with quarterly milestones.
Although the K-12 ed-tech market is a dynamic environment, companies should try to maintain a somewhat long-view on their Objectives. Changing focus every quarter not only risks giving your team “strategy whiplash,” but it can also leave your team fighting inertia every 90 days as they try to launch another new Objective. If any tactical tweaking needs to take place, that should start with your Key Initiatives (which are detailed in the next section).
Remember: Objectives are the efforts driving the execution of your Strategy.
Accomplishing the Objectives set out by the company often depends on numerous tactical activities, such as rolling out new systems and processes, accomplishing product-development milestones, and launching go-to-market plans. Key initiatives are usually deadline-driven rather than outcome-driven, often have quarterly milestones or may occur for only part of the year. When establishing an annual strategic plan, it’s important to focus only on the initiatives with the greatest anticipated impact on your success, rather than get mired in a laundry list of activities.
As your team manages the strategic plan throughout the year, most of the problem-solving and adjustments will occur at the Key Initiative level. It’s not unreasonable to change course and abandon a languishing Key Initiative in favor of a different approach. However, special care should be taken during the initial planning process to identify those Objectives and Key Initiatives most likely to lead to successful outcomes.
Remember: Key Initiatives are the critically important tasks that require increased attention to stay on track in the interest of accomplishing your Objectives.
Putting Your Strategic Plan into Action
In the next few articles in this series, we’ll talk about how to set clear and measurable goals, identify team leaders to drive your Strategic Plan, and communicate effectively with the organization. However, this all begins by establishing clarity regarding where you want to be as a company, what actions will get you there and how you measure success along the way.
The Ed-tech Leadership Collective helps C-level executives achieve strategic clarity and engage their middle managers in leading the business forward. Our executive coaching, professional peer groups and strategic advisory services provide a rigorous framework for setting and executing on your strategic plan. Schedule a free consultation to learn more about how to align your team and successfully achieve your vision.
Collin Earnst is founder and managing partner of the Ed-tech Leadership Collective, an organization focused on helping K-12 Ed-tech companies build leadership capacity in their middle management. The Collective provides executive coaching as well as professional peer groups designed specifically for high-potential ed-tech employees at key points in their career.