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Strategic planning is a journey, and the destination is not the strategic plan

Strategic planning is the colloquial term for both strategic development or analysis and then reducing the results into a written strategic plan. This is a process, but the process does not end there. Ostensibly, the purpose of strategic planning is the achievement of the goals. Therefore, the process can be said to begin with strategic planning and end with the achievement of the goals set forth in the strategic plan, with all the steps in between. Regardless of the degree to which the goals are achieved, many studies have shown that companies that engage in strategic planning do better than those that do not. Periodically, the strategic plan is revisited from time to time after the implementation is in process and the strategic planning process starts anew. This is the journey. These Guidelines are limited to the process leading up to the preparation of the strategic plan.

Planning for the journey

Like any journey, the starting point is the commitment to go on the journey. For a law firm, this means getting the support of the governing body, senior leadership and other key or influential partners and executives (collectively, the “key stakeholders”) and consensus that strategic planning is important and deserves the required resources.

Usually in parallel to obtaining the commitment is the task to assemble the core team members and identify other resources within and outside the firm who will be instrumental in the development and analysis, drafting, and presentation of the strategic plan (or iterations thereof) to the various stakeholders.

It is essential to success that there is a respected leader who can marshal the resources, including the firm’s partners, to participate in the process. In firms that do not have an institutionalized strategic planning function, there must be a guide for the journey. In the parlance of strategic planning, the guide is a facilitator. The facilitator can be the leader, but not all leaders can be the facilitator, whether as a mater of skills, availability or otherwise.

Getting started: Strategic development

At the outset, strategic development is a process that will take some time, should not be rushed, and should prompt critical thinking, as well as research (internally and externally), about the firm’s identity and core values, where the firm is situated in its market, where the firm wants to go, and how the firm intends to get there.

The facilitator and the members of the core team initially should focus on soliciting the answers from the key stakeholders to the following questions:1

  • What do you want the firm/department/group to do?
  • How do you want the firm/department/group to do it?
  • What resources does the firm/department/group need to do it?
  • How long will it take for the firm/department/group to do it?
  • What would the firm/department/group look like if it did what leadership wants it to do?
  • What would the firm/department/group look like if it did not do what leadership wants it to do? Substantively, the foregoing is intended to supplement the research and analysis of the firm and the marketplace. As a matter of process, it is intended to build support for what goes into the strategic plan. Focus initially on the “why” and then the “what” and the “how.”

Strategic development takes time. Soliciting information from key stakeholders is only one component of the process. Many firms do not give themselves enough time to plan properly, especially in terms of gathering market information. Do not take shortcuts in the research phase — that will lead to bad information coming out further in the process.

Also, do not ignore negative information you may learn. Overcoming adversity is one way for firms to grow.

As part of that process, pay attention to your firm’s culture and its ability and readiness to adopt to change. One pitfall of strategic planning teams is that they can focus too much on the future and developing ambitious goals and neglect to consider the firm’s strengths that got the firm to where it is today.

The goals and objectives need to take all these attributes into account.

Outputs from the strategic development process

The strategic development process is intended to result in the following outputs for inclusion in writing the strategic plan:

Where is the firm now?2
  • Mission or purpose statement
  • Core values
  • Competitors
  • Industry and practice group assessment3
Where is the firm going?4
  • Vision statement
  • Internal and external forces currently driving or obstructing the firm and what, if anything, the firm needs to do to change or reinforce
How does the firm get to where it wants to go?
  • Goals5
  • Objectives6
  • Operations plan, including capacity, that addresses who manages and monitors the strategic plan
  • Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and performance metrics
Make your strategic plan SMART

The last section above – how does the firm get from here to there – is the crux of the strategic plan. Being cognizant of the interplay among the goals, the objectives, and the KPIs and performance metrics is perhaps the single most important key to success. The objectives should support the goals and the KPIs and performance metrics should be in furtherance of the objectives as either leading or lagging indicators. What ties them all together is that the objectives are SMART. Each letter of the SMART acronym focuses on a different aspect that makes the objectives more focused and the goals more achievable. A detailed discussion is beyond the scope of these Guidelines.

Writing the strategic plan: Reducing strategic analysis to a written plan

Once the team has obtained the outputs of the strategic analysis, it is time to reduce those outputs to writing. There is no single template for a strategic plan, although there are many templates to choose from. While an effective strategic plan does not have to include all the possible topics of a strategic plan (see below), there are at least four essential elements, namely: the goals, the objectives, the practice/industry group analysis and the applicable KPIs and metrics. Nonetheless, the strategic plan should include all the elements that are necessary or desirable for your firm to use as the guide to implement the strategic plan. See the Illustrative Table of Contents and Commentary below.

Although a detailed discussion of how to write the strategic plan is beyond the scope of these Guidelines, it is highly recommended that the strategic plan be written with a view towards it being abbreviated and segmented in several permutations and combinations in order for it to be presented to different classes of stakeholders in the firm, and, potentially, those outside the firm. If the various personnel within the firm are not aware of the firm’s strategy and their role in its implementation and success, then it’s not likely that the firm or those personnel will succeed.

One cautionary note is that writing the strategic plan, including preparing the presentation and other collateral material, takes time, as does the presentation to various audiences.

Communicating the strategic plan

The key stakeholders (and likely others) should have the entire strategic plan. Nonetheless, comprehension, buy-in and commitment to implement the strategic plan will be significantly enhanced if effort was devoted to developing meaningful and impactful ways to present the strategic plan to various audiences. At a minimum, it is recommended that firm management deliver an executive summary and a power point style presentation in person or via video. Since most strategic plans contain confidential information and may be too detailed for most personnel, an abbreviated version should be prepared and presented for a wider audience. Finally, there are some elements of a strategic plan – mission, vision, and values – that, if prepared, should be widely distributed to all personnel. Reminding them of your firm’s mission, vision, and values reinforces their importance to the firm. These documents can be included on a firm’s intranet, employee manual and other visuals displayed around the firm. Finally, some of all of those elements will have value to audiences outside the firm, such as clients, prospective clients, prospective hires, and in some cases, strategic partners and vendors.

The next step in the journey: Implementation

Implementation of the strategic plan is usually accomplished through an action plan. The action plan is customized based on how much change is contemplated by the strategic plan, the firm’s readiness to change and the capabilities and resources available. Like the strategic planning process itself, leadership and facilitation are essential.

The cautionary note here is not to skimp on this phase or all the work that went into the strategic planning process will be for naught.

Illustrative table of contents of a strategic plan and commentary
1The actual questions posed to key stakeholders will not necessarily track those listed here. This is an example of why a person experienced in this process should be the facilitator.
2In many cases, it is worthwhile to describe the progress of the firm, either for those who are not aware and/or to establish, for reference, the foundation upon which the strategic plan is based.
3Should include a SWOT analysis.
4What goals does the firm want to set and is the firm on the right trajectory or does it have to make changes
5Generally, broad and qualitative.

6Generally, supports the goals and are specific.

Get in Touch

David S. Schaefer is a Managing Director with Calibrate. A former Managing Partner of an Am Law 100 law firm, David advises law firm leaders and COOs on how best to align the practice of law and business of law to best push forward a firm’s culture, vision and strategy.