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Your plan isn’t strategic

Your plan isn’t strategic

The hidden signs your firm’s plan is neither strategic nor growth-driven.

By Ying Liu, LEED AP BD+C

From the Zweig Letter

Despite good intentions, one of the most common pitfalls in strategic planning is the lack or absence of growth strategies, let alone being intentional and strategic about them.

Growth strategies are like part and parcel of a strategic plan in which the ultimate value and impacts are driven by a firm’s ability to both clearly articulate and robustly execute its growth strategies; however, the growth imperatives could also be hazardous to strategy if they do not result in superior profitability and/or ultimately undermine competitive advantage. Deciding on what/where/how to grow requires making choices and trade-offs in competing – to choose what not to do; strategic choices must be fitting enough to achieve growth goals (quantitative and qualitative), and growth initiatives must preserve and reinforce strategic positioning.

That said, what are some hidden, yet telling, signs that your firm’s plan is neither strategic nor growth-driven?

  •  You have a strategic plan, but “something” is missing. Many CEOs of AEC firms would agree that a growth-driven mindset is a non-negotiable attribute and attitude in defining who should serve on their “first team” to move their companies forward, but not too many top leaders exemplify that same growth mindset when it comes to crafting and executing their external growth strategies for their firms, resulting in a strategic plan being too internally-focused with senior leaders paying less or no attention to external strategic issues.
    As such, it is almost always too late – especially for growth-driven leaders and firms – to start developing commercial strategies after operational and/or financial goals are established. The lack or absence of focus on external opportunities often turns out to be a pain point for the CEO (as well as some senior leaders) and keeps them awake at night because their gut feeling is telling them “something” is missing from their current plan – and these feelings are certainly diagnostic due to various external factors including market indicators, competitive landscape, client centricity experience, and/or stakeholder expectations. Quick tip: if you’ve dabbled in strategic planning before, you may immediately think about undertaking a SWOT analysis – particularly the “opportunities” and “threats” buckets – as a potential solution to brainstorm and analyze external macro trends; better yet, there is a more helpful and relevant framework called PESTLE analysis to perform such exercises.
    More likely than not, that “something” includes the missed growth opportunities that could have helped them accelerate/maximize top-line revenues for their firms had they been more intentional and strategic about their commercial strategies (hence, a “growth plan” with external focus that helps refine and shape a firm’s operational and financial strategies, and not the other way around).
  • Your strategic plan is not really strategic but more of an operating plan. While it is important to ensure that formal mechanisms governing how employees get work done (structure, processes, systems, and incentives) are in place, these internal factors should serve as growth enablers to help fuel external growth opportunities, not just satisfy the core or improve the status quo.
    Many firms fail to distinguish operational effectiveness from strategy. While both are essential to superior performance, the two agendas are different. The operational agenda entails continuous improvements where there are no tradeoffs; operational leaders must demonstrate relentless efforts to achieve best practices through constant change and flexibility. In an operational review meeting, your team should be asking questions like:
    • “What are we working on?”
    • “Are we on target?”
    • “How do we ensure everyone is on the same page on the status of a project or initiative?”
  • On the other hand, a strategic agenda is about defining a unique position and making clear trade-offs to build or enhance your firm’s sustainable competitive advantage; strategic leaders must demonstrate constant discipline, strategic continuity, and clear communication. In a strategic plan review meeting, your team should be asking questions like:
    • “Are we working on the right stuff?”
    • “Why are we working on what we are working on?”
    • “Are we moving the needle in our success metrics or are we working on it because it’s the status quo?”
  • No doubt improving operational effectiveness is a necessary part of management, but it is not strategy; firms that have been confusing the two have come to realize that operational effectiveness cannot define the overall growth direction or drive strategic decisions. In fact, many firm leaders have been frustrated by their inability to translate operational gains into sustainable profitability or breakthrough results, without a well-defined growth strategy in the first place.
  •  Your TOP talent is drifting and feels aimless. Note how the word “TOP” is capitalized to differentiate from an average performer. It is almost a cliché to say that recruiting and retention has been one of the biggest challenges in the AEC industry – allow me to take a second to introduce Zweig Group’s ElevateHER® program, a commitment to help recruit, retain, and engage the best minds in the industry. ElevateHER® brings AEC professionals together, from across the country, disciplines, and org charts, to join forces to develop and disseminate actionable plans that aim to solve the recruitment and retention crisis in the industry via the lenses of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
    From a strategic standpoint, securing top talent can be a huge differentiator in positively impacting a firm’s growth trajectory. Top talent is wired to be dissatisfied with a “good enough” approach as they often possess a unique set of skills and perspectives to push the boundaries of conventional ideas to drive unprecedented growth.
    In a strategic plan, developing a compelling people and culture strategy is a must, but if the plan does not help satiate the needs and wants of your top talent at all levels of the organization to inspire them to go that extra mile, you are running the risk of losing your star performers sooner than expected as they are often the first ones to be the ambassadors of a truly strategic growth plan (or if there is a lack thereof, they are also the first ones to notice it).

Overall, strategy is the context of why you are doing what you are doing. What differentiates the best strategic growth plans from the rest really comes down to the firm’s genuine willingness to support, challenge and collaborate with each other in making choices and tradeoffs in investing, competing, and winning – the essential definition of a compelling strategy.

The work required to effectively craft and execute a firm’s growth strategy is no simple task; it is no surprise that many firms try to oversimplify it, confuse it with operational efficiency, or dilute it to be reactive to market demands. Undeniably, the challenge of developing or reestablishing a clear growth strategy is often primarily an organizational one and depends on leadership. Reach out to me if you need support or would like to chat further. 

Ying Liu, MBA, LEED AP BD+C, is a strategy advisor with Zweig Group. Contact her at yliu@zweiggroup.com.