Strategic planning has gotten a bad rap with some business owners. You value flexibility and freedom so much you are concerned that a strategic plan will constrain you, clip your wings, strip away your entrepreneurial spirit, and ability to act. The notion of committing to a plan smacks of a bureaucracy you want to avoid.

But, the truth is strategic planning sets you free.

Not just you but your entire organization. It’s plugging along each day in the daily grind of activity, micromanaging, and putting out fires that handcuffs you, limits your business’s growth and prevents everyone from taking initiative and contributing more toward achieving success. With too close an eye on the short term and no time or plan for the long term, you have little chance of success.

You need a strategy, and here’s why: strategy gets everyone going in the same direction and keeps everyone moving in that direction, making progress toward your goal.

Develop the Habit of Planning

The harsh truth is: if you don’t have a plan in today’s world, you can plan to fail. You need to learn how to see into the future, project, and envision where your company might be in this ever-changing world. Having a plan doesn’t mean that it is carved in stone. Plans shift and change in response to change in the environment.

That is why business leaders need to think of planning or strategizing as something that is ongoing, more of a habit or routine than a one-time activity.

Business leaders need to pay attention, build a deep, broad platform of knowledge and questions for perspective, understanding, and discernment. The best plans derive from a perpetual habit of learning and building your knowledge base.

Develop the Art of Asking Questions

Questions are the keys to thinking strategically. You may begin with simple questions, such as:

  • What are my customers buying from me today?
  • What will my customers want in 10 years?

Other questions will help you see into the future, chart a course, and how you’ll get there:

  • What is the current reality of my business and marketplace?
  • What is the future reality?
  • Where do we want to be in that future reality?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses in my organization?
  • What are potential opportunities?
  • What capacity does you we have to explore opportunities?
  • What is your competitive advantage?
  • What holds your company back?

To do justice to these questions, you will also need to think about your personal vision, a statement that identifies what you want from your business. This will inspire you to think about your personal values.

What is important to you? Thinking through your values and becoming aware of them will help you formulate a vision for your company. What do you want your company to stand for? At Iams, our vision was “to be the world leader in dog and cat nutrition.” It took us a while to articulate that succinctly, but over time and through the habit of planning, it became clearer. In addition to a vision statement and values, you will want to define your mission.

Your mission is what you do every day. It summarizes your reason for existing. Our mission at Iams was “to enhance the well-being of dogs and cats by producing world-class, quality foods.” If you stick to your mission, the result will be realization of your vision.

If you look at your vision, mission, current reality, and future reality, what are the issues that emerge as the ones you must pursue in order to progress toward your vision?

These are your make-or-break issues. It’s best not to do this in a vacuum. Seek insight from people you respect, who can provide a different perspective.

What might be possible for your company, you and your team if you stepped back to ask hard questions, to think them through, and develop a strategic plan?

Excerpt from Run Your Business, Don’t Let it Run You.

About Clay Mathile

Former CEO and owner of The Iams Company, Clay is the founder and Chairman of the Board of Aileron. He believes strongly in free enterprise and has a high respect for business owners who risk their capital to employ others. Clay attributes professional management as one of the key reasons he was able to grow Iams to a $1 billion organization. In 1999, the Mathile family sold Iams to international conglomerate Procter & Gamble for the sum of $2.3 billion.

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