Cramming strategic planning into a last minute fire drill may be a common occurrence these days, but it almost forces planners to rely on opinions rather than facts. This can lead not only to poor planning, but risks a future earnings catastrophe. The solution? Start the planning process early to avoid lurking disaster.

Company leaders who are drowning in day-to-day emergencies often don’t take the time to strategize, to rigorously evaluate and then initiate strategic changes. Often, in times of stress, such changes are made recklessly, or not at all. The former wastes precious resources and time, while the latter invites stagnation and decline. But it does not have to be this way.

Often, near year end, it dawns on business leaders that the New Year is right around the corner and they have put far too little time into strategic planning.  This past year, we received a call from such a CEO, to facilitate a weekend strategic offsite… with about a week’s notice. We did it as well as we could, devoting one day to strategy and the other day to an operating plan.  We had to facilitate aggressively to keep on track and make every minute productive. (Fortunately, the leadership team was amazingly cooperative and engaged.)

But the outcomes were necessarily limited. On the strategy day, since many important initiatives required homework, we couldn’t make final decisions.  The team wanted to brainstorm and combine their collective wisdom to discover innovative approaches, but we had no time for that.  This firm will have a solid operational plan by January 1, but it will be primarily based on last year’s strategic thinking.

If we do have information, it is likely stale. Poorly articulated strategic proposals are much more likely to draw instant criticism than innovative thinking. The participants realize — and are rightly concerned — that a bad decision could be made without further consideration. The loudest voice (often the CEO’s) generally wins — not necessarily the best strategy.  When teams make true consensus decisions, they usually gain approval without a written roadmap or goals and thus contain no accountability for execution.

Strategic planning must have its own place on the calendar, separate from operational planning. Leaders should collect, research, discuss, clarify in print then select the big initiatives before the annual operational planning process begins. Quality strategic decisions must be made, then and only then, followed by quality operational planning to implement them.

Place the planning activities on the calendar, to be executed at roughly the same time each year.  If you work on a calendar year, start your strategic planning between May and July. Begin with a short session to brainstorm and identify those initiatives worthy of more study. Assign each a champion who will do the research and fact gathering.

With all the hubbub of day-to-day activity, you’ll need to appoint a planning process coordinator to keep the meetings rolling, and take responsibility for everyone producing their best research and thinking.  In mid-sized companies which don’t have a chief strategy officer, this person can be the CFO, the CMO, or the CEO. An executive assistant can certainly help with meetings, but most EAs don’t have the power to push for results. (We use a One Page Planning System to make it easier and less time-consuming to accomplish this.)

Some companies feel they don’t need a new strategy and if they’re growing as fast as they want to, they may not. But choosing to stick to last year’s strategy is in itself a major decision, which must also be carefully examined. Take at least a day to debate it.  Other companies may feel they don’t have the money or resources to implement a new strategy.  Yet this in itself may be a sign that the old strategy is failing, and that change is required.  We all have the same amount of time. Getting strategy right every year must precede the execution of that strategy.

If you too are awakening to the need to work on your strategic plan too late in the year to do it well, don’t settle for a puddle-deep process.  Implementing new powerful strategies can begin any time of year.  Create a first quarter or first half operating plan, then kick off a robust strategic planning process January 1, targeting implementation at the start of Q2 or Q3.

Better late than never…