Best practices for effective strategic planning

Jun 29, 2018 | Blog, Guidelines

For those of us working in the life sciences field—especially at the cusp of research and translation—the promised value of strategic and business planning is easily understood and seems pretty straight forward. But when we get down to it, strategic planning can suck up precious executive hours, sometimes to fulfill nebulous expectations from the part of funders or investors, and in the end result in very little change with respect to the bottom line or organizational re-invigoration. 

The fact is (and this can be true whether we’re running a multi million-dollar research institute, a small-scale research program, a 2-month old start-up, or a 10-person charity), strategic planning is critical to success. 

Below are a few ground rules and best practices to ensure your strategic plan propels your organization toward impact and value generation 

Cut the confusion: before you start, make sure your exec team understands what is meant by strategy, goals and actions

Strategy is how you will achieve superior performance in the face of competition. It defines your solution for addressing an unmet need or your unique way of addressing the customer’s need (even if that customer has many other choices). Goals are defined and measurable milestones you’d like to reach—they are aligned and consistent with your strategy. Actions are directives for reaching your goals.

Gain clarity about your end product: your organization needs a strategic plan – not a “strategy” and not a wish-list of goals and actions.

A strategic plan links your organization’s strategy with key goals and actions that bring certainty and clarity around execution. It is data-driven, consensus-built, flexible, lean and meaningful.

When it comes to strategy, ask the tough questions.

Sometimes in the world of life sciences, with long and twisted paths from research to application, we get blinded by the idea of our new transformative offering and don’t want to contemplate the tough questions. But in reality, if we don’t ask these questions, our ideas simply fizzle, linger in a perpetual state of inadequacy and ineffectiveness or worse, prove themselves non-viable after we’ve already invested significant time and dollars. Here are a few to get you started:

  • Does my offering address a real-world need? 
  • What has stopped others from coming up with this solution in the past? 
  • Do I address a need in a fundamentally different way than my competitors? (don’t focus on better or faster or cheaper but how your offering is entirely different) 
  • Who is willing to pay to gain access to my offering? 
  • Am I prepared to invest the level of effort and resources I need to get to a minimum viable product or service? 
  • Are there other offerings coming down the pipeline that will make mine obsolete? 
  • What will be my share of the market and how much certainty do I have around this? 
  • How complex and feasible is the value chain from me to the customer? 
  • How established or entrenched are the regulatory frameworks through which my offering will be evaluated? 

Rigorous research is a necessity 

The knowledge base and expertise of your management team alone is not sufficient to derive a sound and compelling strategy. Rigorous research and data gathering will open the aperture from the board room to the outside world and often de-bunk or re-shape entrenched assumptions that limit your organization. With high quality research, you might find that: 

  • Your most satisfied customers are actually looking elsewhere 
  • The biggest market is the least profitable 
  • New competition has popped up next door 

Don’t give strengths too much play time 

For science-based organizations, strategy is often driven by “what we’re good at” or “what we can afford to put in place”, or “what we can be reasonably expected to accomplish”. A good strategy (be it for a business or a research institute) should be driven primarily by customer or stakeholder need and powered by a competitive advantage—an ability to bring something new to the table to address that need. If that aligns with your existing strengths, that’s great news, if you need to re-focus resources and secure more funds to get there, so be it. 

Marketing and promotion do not bring success, strategy and impact do 

Putting in place a robust marketing and promotion machinery to sell your brand is important, but it’s an action to support your sales or organizational goals—it’s not strategy. Strategy defines what your customers and stakeholders see as valuable and how you can deliver it to them in a distinct way. Without strategy, we can’t reach value and impact, and marketing and promotion become hollow tools. 

Strategic planning is an effort and it’s about people 

A strategic plan is formed over the course of months. It involves executives evaluating and discussing comprehensive evidence, aligning their priorities across operational silos and reaching consensus on the core opportunities and issues. Expert doers then need to come together around strategic priorities to ideate, test and hone a set of goals and supporting actions that provide tangible, feasible and practical solutions for the issues at hand.

Keep it simple and meaningful 

It’s really easy for a strategic plan to turn into a wish list of things to do and things to buy. And in that case, we often generate a plethora of performance measurement indicators to ensure the items are being crossed off. But at the end of the day, we are no more successful or competitive than where we were when we started. So what went wrong? 

The key is to keep the plan lean and mean: To nail down the core aspects of your strategy and then identify the main capabilities and competencies that you need to put in place and the key operational challenges that you must overcome. Then identify 2-3 core actions that will move the needle on those priorities in a tangible way (and don’t bother with the rest). With this level of focus and buy-in, you will see movement and growth, and performance measurement will be burden-free and best of all, informative. 

A business plan is only as good as the strategic plan that drives it 

Financial projections to do with your costs, revenue and profits (the basic components of a business plan) represent critical datapoints. They shed light on the fiscal realities of your operation, and in that sense, they provide high-level parameters for planning. But when sales goals and costs are put at the forefront of planning in an unbalanced way, they become meaningless and unjustifiable. A perfectly feasible strategy can become confounded by the minutiae of affordability, and goals can become lofty or unreachable. On the other hand, when a financially-feasible strategic plan is driving business planning, a clear set of forward-looking objectives that can demonstrably enhance your organization’s distinct value proposition can be easily linked to a definable set of expenses and a reasonable estimate of benefits (be it $ or impact). 

A strategic plan is a living document 

Strategic planning can be exhausting and if you go down the rabbit hole of information gathering, you can never do enough to make your plan 100% full proof. Your datapoints will expand, new opportunities will present themselves and unexpected challenges will come along. Instead of going with the flow or feeling boxed in by your plan, take the time to re-evaluate and re-articulate a new version of your plan, for yourself, for your Board, for your executive team and for your entire organization.