The first step in strategic planning involves gaining perspective. You have to know where you are before you can determine where you want to go.
If you live on this planet, you’ve used the GPS on your phone. When you need to drive somewhere new, you type in the address, and it will chart the fastest route in milliseconds. But if you have your location settings turned off, the GPS won’t work—it’s useless. It can’t tell you how to get where you’re going until it first knows where you are.
The same is true with strategic planning. The first step involves gaining perspective. You have to know where you are before you can determine where you want to go.
Perspective is the art of being honest about your current reality. It requires you to step outside of the moment and see where you are in relation to where you want to be. You can’t begin to set goals and develop strategies if you ignore what’s true about your business today.
Accurate Perspective Requires Internal & External Feedback
Although your view as a business owner is a good place to start when it comes to gaining perspective, it’s a terrible place to end. Everyone has their blindspots, and the last thing you want to do is make critical business decisions without seeing the full picture.
To gain an accurate perspective on your business, I suggest you enlist other people’s points of view in addition to your own. This will require both internal and external feedback.
How to Get Valuable Internal Feedback
Internal feedback lies mostly with hearing from your employees, a significant source from which to gain perspective. Your employees’ perspectives reflect their lived experiences, and they contribute to your company culture as well as your productivity.
There are many ways to solicit internal feedback. Typically, one isn’t inherently better than the other. The way a method is implemented, however, can increase or decrease its accuracy. It’s a good idea to gain internal feedback through a variety of mediums so your data isn’t skewed based on the specific method you choose. Here are a few suggested methods.
1. Employee Surveys
Employee surveys are one of the most common ways to solicit internal feedback. However, research suggests that as few as 22% of companies get valuable results from employee engagement surveys. That’s often because they don’t believe their voice matters.
If you’re going to use employee surveys, your employees need to believe that their feedback actually means something. Employees are happier and more engaged when they work for companies that act on employee feedback.
As a business leader, it will help to communicate your sincerity for wanting to hear the truth from your employees, even if that truth isn’t positive—especially if it’s not positive. The only way you can gain an accurate perspective through employee surveys is if your employees feel safe enough to be honest and vulnerable about what’s not working and what could be improved.
2. Metrics and Analytics
Our feelings play a role in how we experience work, but they aren’t always reflective of reality. That’s why gathering metrics and data can help balance other methods of soliciting employee feedback.
For example, let’s say a department leader complains about his or her team in an employee survey, citing their laziness and lack of engagement. At the same time, you gather data for that department, and it turns out that the team was not only meeting their goals, but exceeding them.
How would that change the nature of your problem? Would you pour resources into demanding higher levels of employee productivity, or would you be better off investing in management training for that leader and working to strengthen trust and communication in that department? Adding the metrics in this example brings a more accurate perspective.
3. Involve Your Employees in Strategic Planning
Proper strategic planning is not something a CEO does alone. It should involve a leadership team and, when possible, as many in the company as appropriate. When I conduct the StratOp strategic planning process, I frequently spend a day and a half with entire teams, helping them gain an accurate perspective on where they are as a company. We do this before any planning happens.
When we do this, I’ll refer to the nine principles of strategic planning. The first three principles in particular revolve around inviting a team of employees to gain honest, accurate perspective together:
- Manage the Whole: Invite employees to think as if they were the owners of the business.
- Breakthrough Is Horizontal: All employees from different teams speak into different areas of the business, even if it’s not in the area in which they work or have the most expertise.
- The Truth Sets Us Free: Foster an environment where employees feel safe being honest. Encourage your team not to hold back.
How to Get Valuable External Feedback
Your team offers a myriad of valuable perspectives that can help you gain a clearer picture of where you are as a business. However, they aren’t the only people with a stake in what happens to your company. External feedback can help you see what customers, business partners, and objective observers see. Here are some practical steps to gain their insight.
1. Survey Business Partners and Close Clients
Your business partners are a step or two removed from the day to day machinations of your business. Their perspective can give you clarity about issues that may be invisible to your employees.
Similarly, clients with whom you have a close relationship can provide valuable feedback as well. Clients experience your company from a completely different vantage point from your employees or business partners. They go through your systems as a customer, not an administrator, and can point to gaps in the process or pain points for future clients.
2. Partner with a Strategic Facilitator or Business Coach
A business coach is trained to offer unbiased observations to business leaders and their teams so they can improve and grow. Consider hiring an executive coach, or hire a strategic facilitator to provide structure and feedback during your annual strategic planning process. This outside, third-party perspective will help you and your team see things that you otherwise may be blind to.
Be Prepared to Be Challenged by Your New Perspective
I’ll be frank: if you don’t accept what you read or hear as you gather perspective, then don’t even make the attempt. Acceptance is the last step you must take to gain an accurate perspective about your business.
Sometimes, the truth hurts, and it can be tempting to use your positional authority as a business leader to ignore any truths you don’t like. But your company can’t get to where you want it to be unless you know where you are right now. Remember, humility is one of the hallmarks of true leadership.
What Is the Next Step After Gaining Perspective?
As I mentioned earlier, when preparing for a strategic planning session, gaining perspective should be the first step. Once you’ve done that, you’re ready for the next steps to creating a strategic plan:
- Determining where you’re headed
- Recognizing what’s important now
- Finding the right structure to facilitate the plan
- Reviewing the plan regularly
- Renewing the plan annually and making changes where necessary
Gaining perspective is never a finished step; it’s an ongoing requirement of any business leader and their team. By prioritizing perspective before planning, you can ensure that you know where you are, and you can more clearly see the path that will take you where you want to go.