Employee Participation in your Strategic Planning Process

Employee Participation in your Strategic Planning Process

In our August 2010 E-Notes we spoke about the need for a clear and concise statement of a company’s strategy. We consider writing such a statement to be the middle of the strategic planning process. At the point the statement of strategy is written, you are at the midpoint of strategy creation. We believe that because—

  • Before you can write the strategy statement, you must decide what your company is, what it can be and what it does well; and
  • After you write it, you must figure out how you are going to do all of that stuff you wrote—i.e.: getting from today to Point B.

Let’s talk about the first step in understanding “today” and creating your firm’s future strategic direction. Many people call this work the “strategic planning process.” There are very well documented steps in the process. Go to the business section of your local bookstore and you will find 20 books on the subject. They pretty much say the same routine, but correct, things about what needs to be done—

  • Identify opportunities and current and perceived markets of interest;
  • Understand strengths and weaknesses—in general and regarding defined market opportunities;
  • Know your customers;
  • Know your competitors;
  • Understand your resources;
  • ……………..

It is often the case that a very select group of executives and “experts” participate in a company’s strategic planning process. It is seen as a high-level exercise, and indeed it is. However, it can become elitist in nature and may lose touch with the company’s most important assets—its managers and employees. We call them the “fingertips” of the company. Ignore your sense of touch at your own peril.

Managers and employees are often excluded from the strategic planning process because some experts believe it is not a good idea to allow strategy creation to be influenced by the implementers. This is because some say that the employee-implementers view the world in limitations, where a strategy should only consider opportunity—without much regard for possibilities and limits. That is technically correct, but never a very practical approach. Limits have a tendency to define capabilities and companies, and who better to honestly know and state these limits than your non-executive employees.

So how do you ask employees what they think and then mesh those opinions and observations into a strategic-planning context? We believe that the best way to accomplish this goal is by using a simple opinion survey instrument. In our experience, the following elements are essential to the design of a strategic-planning survey instrument for employees (all employees):

  • Gather information from a broad cross-section of employees and policymakers—Board Members to sales reps;
  • Include managers and employees who regularly touch customers and products—do not be afraid to send out too many surveys, but do not just send one to anyone;
  • Ask about where the company is strong;
  • Ask about where the company is weak;
  • Ask what strengths and products are crucial to future success;
  • Who are the tough competitors and what do they do better than we do;
  • What is missing from the product line that customers require;
  • Make the survey as quantitative as possible with forced scales and ranking;
  • Also, use a hand full of open-ended questions to allow the participant to say their piece, without structure; and
  • Assure that all participants know that the responses are strictly confidential.

We have also found that the best survey results occur when a professional is used to help design the survey, analyze and report the results with a statistical discipline.

Some clients also like to expand this same inquiry to key customers. This is an excellent idea, but significantly increases the complexity of the survey analysis and feedback. If you choose to not survey your top 50 customers, we suggest that you alternatively interview the top 5-10.

You have completed the employee survey and analyzed results. What do you do with it?

An effective way to focus the strategic planning process is to get all of the decision makers into the same room and do not let them out until there is a consensus to write a statement of strategy, or schedule another meeting to continue the dialogue and close.

To kick off such a session, we always believe it is good idea to first have the group leader present all the facts, information and knowledge need to make key strategic decisions to the group. This will generally include secondary market research gathered from available information and primary research you have created (i.e.: your employee strategic survey). We have found that it works best if you first present the survey findings and then validate or challenge them with available market facts, research and opinion. For example if all employees surveyed strongly agree that the company is the “market leader,” but Marketing says we have only a 3% share of market, more work is required to reconcile these findings. In one instance, we found a client’s executive team had a completely different view of its “best” products when compared to those of most of its employees—who lived with the “clunkers” daily. That was eye opening.

Leading with the employee survey is a very powerful step and often sets the stage for the entire planning session and process from that point forward.

If you are a CEO or a Board member and have just sat through the feedback of an employee strategic survey, what have you typically learned while viewing the company through the eyes of its employees?

  • What the company can do and cannot do;
  • Whether the company can fulfill its strategic vision with its current foundation of products and people;
  • The differences in perceptions and knowledge between various employee groups—say the executives and the customer service representatives;
  • The effectiveness of past investment and communications; and
  • That what you do not know can misdirect and ultimately hurt you.

However, the most important thing that you will learn is that your employees can be pretty smart and articulate folks.

Armed with that information, your company can set out to make better strategic decisions and only pursue initiatives that can be implemented with the resources and employees at hand—or make the additions required. In our view that is a lot of value received at a relatively small cost.

Are you doing strategic planning this year or next? If so, consider the value that can be provided by a focused employee survey. Call me, and I will share some strategic survey “tricks and traps” with you.

Next month we will discuss what to do after you have finished your strategic planning process and written a strategy statement. It is now time to make it happen.

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