Lesson on Strategic Planning for Aspiring Organizational Leaders

March 22, 2009
13 min read

Most of us have studied vision and strategy in college.  Then we have heard of it so many times at work enough to make us want to get to the bottom of it. 


Vision means where and how we want to see our organization in the coming decades.  Strategy is a special kind of plan that tells how we will materialize the vision.  Whereas a simple plan is a wishful representation of steps towards the vision, a strategy is made by taking in consideration the opportunities and threats posed by the external environment as well as the strengths and weaknesses inherent in the organization.  


However vision and strategy need not be limited to the organization.  These two tools are highly effective in managing our personal lives, our careers, our relationships, and even conversations. 


Illustration 1

Recently I was offered a chance to work with a big multi-national company.  The negotiation went on for months.  When everything was settled and the only thing left was to sign on the dotted lines, I realized I would be making a strategic mistake if I sealed the deal.  So I quit the table. 


Had I gone through with that alliance, three things would have happened:

  1. My personal vision for my career and family would have been jeopardized.
  2. My strength, which is in creativity, would have been suppressed and my weakness, which is dislike for structure, would be exposed. 
  3. Knowing as much as I do about the economic scenario of Nepal, I deduced that the business model of the above MNC was incongruent and unrealistic at least for the coming 10 years, although it worked in other countries. 


This is why I say, “I avoided a strategic mistake”.  Of course there were opportunities I had to let go like higher income, international travel and chances to learn from other icons of my industry.  But as the saying goes, one can’t have everything. 


If a student makes a mistake in an exam, he gets fewer marks.  If a teller makes a mistake, his cash will be ‘short’.  If a doctor makes a mistake, patients may die.  If an engineer makes a mistake, bridges fall.  We are all aware of such possible mistakes because their effects are so obvious.  So we try to avoid them by gaining the necessary knowledge, skills, attitudes and behaviors.  This happens at what I call the ‘operational level’.  However, few of us are aware of what happens at the strategic level. 


Illustration 2

A teller in a bank found out upon closing, that he was short of Rs.50,000/- .  He looked in every transactions, went through the CCTV, asked colleagues.  But he was still clueless.  He had a made a mistake, but he did not know which one.  He was sad because he will have to pay out his pocket.  He thought of all the things he will have to sacrifice in order to make up for this mistake. 


Then as he was about to leave, a customer comes in running.  He scolded the teller, “Why did you give me so much extra money?”  It was a happy ending.  But there is a strategic component to this story that is not obvious at all. 


This teller had vision.  His vision was to go home everyday without making any ‘short’.  Visions can be positive as well as in negation form.  Then he also made a strategy.  He knew that the biggest threat towards his vision were customers not returning any surplus cash he would give out.  He would not do it intentionally but as any banker will say, ‘It just happens.  I can’t say how exactly.  You lose your concentration for that blink of a second and the money is gone. It is as simple.”  Knowing the potential for error despite all efforts, this teller made a strategy. It was to be very polite and smile to all customers. Also the plan was to never to miss eye contact before and after transactions.  His understanding of human nature was, “It is harder to cheat someone you know than someone you don’t.”  He also developed a framework to analyze customers and adapt his behavior accordingly.  His bosses were impressed by his ‘customer dealing’ approach.  Sure it slowed him down a bit but it was good for business. 


Eventually the mishap happened.  The customer could have been kind or full of integrity.  But at a strategic level, things appear different. The customers’ action of returning the surplus cash was the inevitable consequence of our tellers’ strategic planning. 


Illustration 3

A student has the vision to score high in exams. In order to achieve that vision, he needs to study, which he does.  However his scores in mock test are lower than he expects.  If he is an average student he will study harder.  However if he is a future strategist, he will take the mock exam as a feedback.  He will thus analyze what his mistakes were and of what weaknesses were they indicative.  He will also look at answers that got high scores and thus identify what strengths of his contributed towards that.  In this way he has an inventory of strengths and weaknesses.  He then will investigate the methods to transform his weaknesses.  Shall he take tuition?  What kind of teacher will be most suited to help him?  Who among his friends has a strength where he shows weakness?  How can he approach her?  How will he know that is weakness is no longer going to trouble him in the coming exams? 


Answering all these question, our future Napoleon (master strategist) will make a strategy that will help materialize his vision.  Of course, lately he will have to take in consideration the threats on study time posed by load shedding. 


The battle of visions

Even if you have the best strategy but your vision is not clear and unique to you, it will be meaningless.  The biggest part of my youth, I struggled to find my vision.  Society and the academic systems put ready-made dreams for the future in my mind, but I rejected them.  There is a saying (chapter 3 verse 35) in the Gita that I understood as, “It is better to die following one’s vision than another’s”.  


Before the Maoist movement, the vision of the Nepalese living in the rural area was, “A life of scarcity without fighting back.”  Now their visions has been transformed to, “A life of abundance by hook or by crook.”  The vision of “Servitude to Zamindars for prosperity” lost its brilliance. 


In fact politics is less about ideology or dirty games and more about instilling your visions upon the mass population.  This is true even if you are running a nation, a company, a family or simply your life. 


A client asked me, “I want my colleague to laugh and joke.  I have made others jovial. But this nut is hard to crack.  Can you give me some tips?”  I asked her how long she was with the group and she replied it was only few months. 


There are two ways to look at this question from a coach’s point of view.  I could have treated it as a problem and given a solution.  Either she had to find a way to change his behavior or she had to stop expecting such a change.  On the other hand, I could take it as a leadership situation, which is what I did.  This client had a vision for her group, “That every body works happily, teasing one another, giving support at work and at the emotional level too because we spend more time with each other than with family or friends.”  She agreed.  Then I told her, “Your leadership challenge is thus to instill the same vision in that colleague. That will require you to earn his respect and then he will give you the right to inspire him with your vision. Earning respect can take a lot of time as it requires such incidents in which you can exceed his expectation of ‘ordinary handling’. So you should be patient and not miss any opportunity to prove yourself to the group.  That should be your strategy to materialize your vision.” 


 Checklist for implementing visions

CEO’ job is less about management and least about operations.  It is more about making strategic choices and most about weaving dreams for the future in mind and hearts of the employees, clients, and even stakeholders.  That is tough because unconsciously or consciously, they already have a vision, which may be incompatible with that of the organization, or they don’t have any vision.  Both scenarios are not good for our CEO. 


Lack of vision among all employees sunk many ships like Sajha Yatayat.  The vision of the organization was noble, sound and realistic, “Cheap and easy transport for all.”  But employees didn’t digest this vision and make it part of their attitudes to their jobs and of their behaviors.  Yes, the collapse has been attributed to political interference and corruption and poor management (especially staffing and controlling), but as in the illustration (2) of the teller above, we have to look at the strategic level too. 


What went wrong was poor strategic planning on the part of the top management.  They had the vision correct.  But they failed to analyze the environment.  Given the notorious habit of the government to mess around corporations (that is well documented) it had shares in this should have been taken as a serious threat for which a plan must have been devised to counter balance. 


The engineer when building a bridge has to consider all the environmental hazards and add to the safety measures during the construction itself.  So in this analogy, the architect is the visionary, the engineer is the strategist, the contractors are the managers and the workers are the employees.  In Nepal the problem is we think the engineer is an unproductive cost when it comes to creating organizations. 


But not everyone has this limited conception. For example, a CEO hired my management consulting service to spread his vision to every employee in all the corners of their organization, and make that vision an integral part of their own personal aspirations and habits.  It is ambitious but doable. Above all it is highly appreciated by the people. 


When making a strategy, don’t forget the people.  You cannot take them for granted.  Management textbooks talk about employees being part of the organization and thus we have to only have consider their strengths and weaknesses.  Instead you have to see their behaviors and mentality as opportunities and threats. Unless you turn employees into followers, the exponential growth you are eagerly seeking, might just be a mirage. 


Making a framework for strategic planning

Strategists are known to be silent, spending most of their time thinking.  With a stroke of genius they make decisions for the course of their organizations that are just unbelievable in how unorthodox, simple they are and in how astounding results they achieve, are.  How do they do it?  Can we do it too? 


Strategists are usually voracious readers.  But they don’t do it for pleasure.  They read to find patterns in the external environments that they can use as opportunities or that they need to avoid, them being threats. 


Strategists don’t use their bodily hair for warmth, instead they use the hair as antenna to scan the vibrations of the external environment.


They decide:

  1. Is it time to lay low or to rise like an unstoppable tide?
  2. Is it time buy or sell?
  3. To compete or collaborate?
  4. To burn bridges or not? 
  5. With whom to shake hands and with whom not too?
  6. To expand or not?
  7. Which product to launch and which not? 
  8. Which sector to get into and which to get out from? 
  9. What type of followers to attract and how? 
  10. Which rules to follow and which to break? 


In order to make these decisions, the strategist needs information.  We all have access to this information.  Yet we can’t be a masterful strategist unless we have a framework to organize, simplify and thus interpret all the data, information and knowledge we acquire through reading, observing, interacting or simply ESP (Extra Sensory Perception) also known as the sixth sense. 


Every strategist has his own framework.  I will tell you about mine.  I organize information into ‘relevant to my business’ or ‘irrelevant to my business’.  Then I shuffle the relevant info into sectors (profit, non-profit, government), next into sub sectors (eg. trading, manufacturing, banking).  I tag certain labels to each piece of info like new/old, propaganda/genuine, one-time/trend, related to any other information/one-off, feedback/feedforward, related to demand/supply, call for continuation/innovation, clever step/mistake committed by entity in the info and so on.  Then I ask one of the above questions to my database, then I get advices.  Sometimes when a pattern completes itself in the subconscious, it alerts me through various means like a thought that won’t go away. 


Certified Leader?

Some time ago there was an article about company secretaries needing certification to practice, but only a few of this species existed in Nepal.  It will take some time if ever there is a necessity to certify visionaries and strategist. 


Only thing that must be considered when taking a leader on-board is to see if he uses vision and strategy in every aspect of his life.  These two tools are not something you just study about and hope you will able to use when you are a CEO.  Here are some tips to master these two leadership skills:

  • Practice using visioning and strategizing from the beginning of the day.  As you wake up have a vision for how you want to feel that night and what you want to have achieved by then.  Consider your mood, your health, your preparation for strength and weakness.  Mentally do surveillance on the ‘mindscape’ consisting all the people, activities and eventualities you will have to deal with that day judging which might stand as opportunity and which as threat.   Based on this analysis plan your day.  All day long take this strategic plan as a map to your vision. 
  • Remember this doesn’t mean to be a robot.  The plan at a strategic level is not specific.  It is not activities based but results based.  Here the outcomes we seek are feelings and achievements. 
  • When you get an opportunity to work in a group or any project, don’t wait to be told.  Make a vision, a strategy, and get on with your leadership mission. 


In this way, you will be ready for the big day of corporate leadership.  I have a glorious vision for you, “You are the CEO of a large organization and I am your management coach.”