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You’ve been working on your business concept for some time, and it’s finally starting to show results. There’s a growing interest in your startup, and the headcount is slowly increasing. Although income is on the up, you realize that money and potential customers are getting lost because your internal flow is disjointed. Scale has caused the tight knit system of communication and processes to unravel. It suddenly dawns on you that you need a strategic plan template.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 774,725 new businesses were registered in the year ending March 2019. Of those, 20% were expected to fail within the first year, and only 25% will still be trading in a decade. Lack of capital, flawed market research, bad management and ineffective planning rank among the top reasons startups fail to gain and maintain momentum.
So you get your leadership team together, pull out your strategic business plan template and get to work figuring out your long term plan. You need to identify overall goals and develop a plan to achieve them over the next year (or even five). Together you spend days poring over how to harness the opportunities and overcome challenges to make sure the company is headed in the right direction.
After a week or even a month, you finally have the ideal strategic plan to share with everyone. It’s comprehensive, and nothing’s left out. But it’s also difficult to digest and has cost the leadership team time they can’t afford. (Also listed in the top reasons startups fail is poor time management!)
The reality is that no business functions in a predictable environment today. Rapidly changing technology, evolving global trading conditions and customer expectations dictate how successful companies operate. No matter how well constructed, your strategic business plan can quickly become obsolete. Being detailed, it becomes a time-waster; people stop referring to it because of time constraints.
How then do you ensure that your company has a plan and doesn’t revert to crisis management and losing revenue and profits? The way to do it is by adopting a structured short term planning approach for each area of the business. In other words, you need to replace your strategic plan with strategic documents. Although a medium-term strategic plan is still necessary, it should be done every four to six months. Reflect on overall achievements, new developments, challenges, opportunities and then plan for the next few months. Obviously, this plan is built around the core objectives and value system of the organization. But it isn’t a long-winded, difficult to comprehend document of hundreds of pages. It’s a means for leadership to guide, direct and motivate their teams.
“Team management, however, must be done through strategic documents” says Michelle Duval, CEO of F4S. “This is a recurring problem I’ve seen in my years of coaching in high growth ventures. Very often, people in early growth startups have no experience in writing strategy docs (and they don’t need any). But when they start scaling – nobody knows what to do, and that’s when problems begin.”
A strategic document is a living document that’s created for each project and shared with all team members and other role-players to contribute and collaborate in real-time.
The originator is the person responsible for the project. For example, a hiring manager will create a strategic document to fill a vacancy. The core requirements get set out, and the document gets shared with the hiring team and anyone else involved. They add their input and together come up with a strategy of how to find the best candidate. Considerations like urgency to fill, skills availability and market-related salary are discussed in the document, and ongoing collaboration is recorded.
Each strategy document becomes a validated point of reference for how a specific project progressed, was concluded and, if and how it deviated from the original plan. It becomes a valuable source of data for future, similar plans. Strategy documents will differ substantially for different types of projects – from team improvement to growth and marketing, product development, etc.
Founded in 2012, Canva is a graphic design platform that allows users to create social media graphics, presentations, posters and other visual content. From a handful of people a few years ago, this Sydney based startup has grown in headcount to over 1 150 people. It’s a typical example of founders with a few employees creating a product that takes a startup to a thriving, competitive organization in a short time.
I had the opportunity to chat with Zach Kitschke, Head of Marketing, to find out how strategic documents contributed to Canva’s explosive growth as a global tech startup.
Zach refers to a strategy doc as a “rolling stone gathering moss” which is an excellent comparison. How did the concept take root, then?
It all started several years back when they noticed engineers didn’t get the whole picture of product goals and user journey. Too many code reviews resulted, and that’s how strategy docs came to life. Each product was assigned a living document in Google docs that was shared with engineering to make collaboration in real-time easier. Product strategy docs proved to be an excellent option and got adopted as part of Canva’s business process.
But as they started scale, they were doubling headcount year on year. Hiring became an issue. More employees joining meant lots of stakeholders with varying requirements. Canva fell back on the strategic docs concept and redesigned it for hiring. The results were fantastic!
Subsequently, Canva has incorporated strategic docs across the organization for different departments and projects. Templates with key criteria are crucial to guide originators, but each doc is an individual spec and a live record that runs for the duration of an assignment.
Asked how he handles a strategy doc when he’s the originator, this is how Zach does it: he spends about thirty minutes compiling a doc right after a meeting and then shares it with direct stakeholders. Collaboration is essential from the get-go to crystalize shared thinking on a specific project or objective. Emphasis is on getting things moving and approved in the shortest time.
Avoiding lengthy plans and processes gets everything (and everyone) in alignment right away because questions get answered and challenges considered from the start.
Did strategic docs replace strategic plans at Canva then? Not at all, according to Zach. Annual goals, medium and long term objectives and decision making are still vital for growth across the board. However, leadership at Canva have developed systems and processes that eliminate time-consuming ways of doing strategic business plans.
What did I take away from chatting to Zach? Make strategy docs uncomplicated, user friendly and collaborative to keep everyone on the same page and gather ongoing insight.
Every budding entrepreneur gets told that they need a strategic business plan. Applying for finance requires it, business advisors recommend it, and many people end up overthinking that their patience kills their startup.
Successful startups are run by action, goal orientated and savvy entrepreneurs. The days of bulky documents getting delivered to your desktop are long gone. No one cares to read through pages and pages of uppity language to find one bite of info. (That’s a spin-off of social media). People want reliable information that they can quickly scan through to deliver results.
Today’s business communication is reader-friendly, uses graphics and illustrations, is relevant to the present and conveys a message fast and efficiently. Consequently, you have to design all communication, including strategic info, in a way that will draw attention and keep people focused.
Where in the past strategic planning was done over months by business leaders and then filtered down to everyone else as an “instruction”, now you want collaboration. Processes and objectives only get attained through employee buy-in. Engaging staff from the outset gets them involved; they see the big picture and feel part of the organization through ownership of their work.
Entrepreneurs who want to micromanage and control every aspect of their startup will fail! Building trust in teams is essential to business success. Forward-thinking leaders have high emotional intelligence.
Start by trashing the strategic plan template you downloaded from the internet (or that your bankers gave you).
Next, get your co-founders or leadership team together to discuss your plans and objectives for the business and assess where things currently stand. Identify areas that need attention, those that are bringing results and others that may be necessary in the short-term. Comparing your plans and objectives with the snapshot of your current reality takes you to strategy. How are you going to align what you have and how things are done now with your planned outcomes?
A plan is one thing, and a strategy to achieve that plan is something completely different.
Once you have leadership consensus on implementing strategy documents, your next task is getting all employees to understand how things will work from now on. Reliable leadership communication will open the door to reciprocal communication from staff. Employees must know that they have a vital role to play in their area of skill and to see where they fit into the bigger picture of overall success.
Sharable platforms like Google docs allow easy access and feedback, but if people are unfamiliar with these processes, they might ignore them. Some training and orientation are necessary to get the new collaborative mindset to sink in.
Having dumped the notion of a strategic plan template and getting buy-in from everyone, each leader can begin compiling their templates. Remember, each project or objective has their own doc and so they’ll all differ substantially. There are, however, some not-negotiables if the system is going to work.
Lack of concise focus: include problems and risks as well as solutions and alternate options. Readers must know the direction.
A strategic document aims to get plans into action as soon as possible. Share the core structure with collaborators within about 24-hours of discussing the concept. That gives them a week or two to add and expand on the project scope before initiation. Taking weeks to draft ideas into a document results in lack of crystallization, loss of momentum and even re-prioritization to the back of the queue.
Another factor that will see your document getting utilized successfully is keeping it narrative-based. It must have a storyline that explains the process from inception to finalization. Content must capture the readers’ attention, be informative, raise all pros and cons, offer scenarios and solutions and be credible and convincing. That’s how you get buy-in.
As projects move on, you’ll begin to build data on how they performed in your organization. Cost issues, skills, deadlines and profitability can all be measured within the parameters of how your business operates. Industry standards are always a crucial factor, but trailblazers are those who dictate, ignore the norms and set new standards. Using actual historical data from within your environment will come with many lessons, but it will also expose unique opportunities.
Finally, strategic documents aren’t a tool for success in every situation. When a crisis arises that requires leaders to think on their feet and take immediate action, a doc will be a hindrance. Broad information or concepts that lack detail don’t need a strategic doc either.
Strategic documents are how startups and big business will make strides in today’s market. Time is a massive element to achieving success, and plans must get actioned as soon as possible.
Create templates based on how your business operates and your industry. Some might be complexed and protracted with many collaborators and vital inclusions, and others straightforward. Either way, turf that strategic plan template sooner than later if you want to remain competitive.
The idea might seem strange at first, but once you see the benefits you’ll think otherwise. Consider this – as little as five years ago the idea of remote employees delivering great results was almost unimaginable. Today it’s rapidly become more and more of a reality.