A sign of a happy client for us is one who keeps in touch, even just to throw ideas around. One of our long-term and favourite clients at DMA is a senior communications manager in a large public sector organisation. We’ve helped his group over the years with everything from information design and architecture to training and planning.

So when he called in “a bit of a rush” and asked us to help him define strategic planning and why it was important, we said ‘Sure!’

Then he said he needed something in 15 minutes…

Nothing like a bit of urgency to focus the senses! And focused they were. To the extent we wanted to share our response verbatim because it might just be one of the most succinct things we’ve written on the subject. It also reminded us that sometimes trusting your own body of experience (and not Wikipedia) and writing off the top of your head can be the best way to think!

Yes, it's an ironic blue sky / green fields image!

Yes, it’s an ironic blue sky / green fields image!

Organisations often have Business Plans or Operational Plans, which are critical to the overall performance of the organisation, but on their own are not enough.

The concept of the need for a higher level Strategic Plan is based on the reality that Executives should not only be planning for what they know (generally the operations of the next 12 – 18 months) but also be exploring where they want the organisation to head over a longer time period (say 3-5 years).

In planning terms the Strategic Plan allows for what we call ‘Planning Horizons’ which are longer-term phases of development or evolution for the organisation (remembering that if the planning shows that the market is volatile or shrinking that the evolution might actually be to be more restrained).

The key elements of a Strategic Plan are generally already in existing business plans – most likely called ‘environment’ or ‘operating environment’. During the Strategic Planning process this thinking is expanded.

The type of areas that should be thought about in terms of Strategic Planning can include:

  • Executive Intent (or mission) for the organisation
  • Opportunities
  • Operating risks
  • Capability frameworks
  • Potential service offerings
  • Outcomes sought (as opposed to the ‘outputs’ generally defined in business planning)
  • Measures of success – what will the future look like
  • Future operational scenarios – examples of key service experiences or changes that the implementation of the strategic plan will lead to

A Strategic Plan is only worth doing if it is used, a good one will be used in the following ways:

  • To influence long-term investment in key areas such as facilities, IT, business process and resources
  • To influence business plans (all business activity should link directly to the long-term strategic aim)
  • To influence the developing service offering
  • To influence recruitment
  • To influence key stakeholders such as Ministers and key clients

It should be revisited and tested regularly by the Executive to challenge assumptions – especially in the current operating climate of most organisations.

All other planning (annual business plans and operational plans) should continue, but only in alignment with the Strategic Plan.

And importantly, every single member of your team should be able to see their place in the strategic plan and how they are working towards delivering on the outcomes within it.

 How far ahead should you plan for?

Normally Strategic Planning can be undertaken with a five-year view. This is enough to ensure the outcomes defined can be reached through investment decisions and the stated mission isn’t affected by current operational realities. In the current economic and bureaucratic operating environment a three-year plan with less detail for the following two years might be more appropriate (much more about the outcome of global fiscal movement will be understood in the next 18 months).


Sure if we had longer, say 30 minutes, we may have come up with something deeper, but in preparing this post it was nice to reflect that we wouldn’t change much. Our client was happy, and it’s always nice to be put to the test about what really matters.

Any views or critique or comment is welcome!