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You can't get there without a road map

November 1, 2006
by Paul R. Willging, PhD
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What will your community look like five years hence? How about the environment in which it operates? Will financing systems be the same? Public and community perceptions of long-term care? What will your product look like? The same as today's? Appreciably different? Unrecognizable?

It's amazing how many of us embark on a major journey without a road map—or, in this case, a strategic plan. That's basically what a strategic plan is, after all—a road map. And strategic planning is not all that difficult. It requires only that we step back from our day-to-day activities and think a bit about the future, and how we wish to accommodate to it. This can actually be fun!

Let's start, though, by differentiating strategic thinking from strategic planning. Strategic thinking is the process that organizations use to determine what their future should look like. Such thinking creates a vision of where the organization would like ultimately to find itself. Strategic planning, on the other hand, focuses on how to achieve the vision derived from strategic thinking.

Both strategic thinking and planning are important, but most companies are more effective in strategic planning than strategic thinking, perhaps because senior company officials tend to have an operations background. Such backgrounds are better preparation for strategic planning than for strategic thinking, and even the most successful operators may not have had the opportunity to develop the skills required for the latter. Furthermore, the common emphasis these days on current market share and growth may shift the focus away from new markets.

Strategic thinking, therefore, requires the organization to take a wider view. How concrete is your vision? Is it shared across the community or company? Does senior staff spend most of its time on operational or on strategic matters? Are you largely reacting to external events, or are you proactively implementing your corporate vision? Are you thinking mostly about next month or next year? Do you think strategically only in crises, or when things are going well? Is your primary focus next month's or next year's bottom line?

I could go on, but you probably get the idea. Strategic thinking is not simply an extrapolation from today into tomorrow. It is the development of a framework developed de novo, not simply a reflection of today's reality. While it must be realistic and based on available data, it does not assume that tomorrow will be a reflection of today. Initially, at least, it attempts to add rather than eliminate likely scenarios, and that might make it appear overly burdensome. But there will be plenty of time to become more realistic and balanced when we move from strategic thinking to strategic planning.

Several key (although not always obvious) principles should guide your strategic thinking (vision) and strategic planning (mission). (And best to make clear at this point that profit is neither your vision nor your mission. Profit, rather, is a product of the activities your vision and mission generate.) First, there must be a single vision, a single mission within the company, and all company activities must be organized and operate accordingly. And absent changes in the market or competitive environment, they must remain consistent; constant change results in a loss of focus. Finally, whatever your vision, two key core competencies must be mastered within your mission for your vision to become reality: marketing and quality.

When the company has defined its vision and mission, it can begin to develop a strategy. In other words, it can begin to attach goals (long term) and objectives (short term) to its vision and mission. Goals are the quantifiable “way stations” we aspire to visit as we fulfill our mission (e.g., to assume the dominant position in our chosen market by 2011). Objectives are the shorter-term (and equally measurable) activities required to reach one's goals (e.g., to reach a 90% customer satisfaction level in 2007).

Even before writing up goals and objectives, however, corporate officers need to communicate their vision and mission to company employees in a manner that elicits both employee understanding and “buy-in.” The typical vision/mission statement (“We will be a successful company and make a lot of money”) won't do it. That's neither vision nor mission, and certainly not anything designed to kindle the fires of dedicated employees. A measure of a concept's effectiveness is whether employees throughout the company can fully understand the statement and apply its principles to their own work.

Let's use an example from the National Investment Center for the Seniors Housing & Care Industry (NIC). As for vision, NIC sees itself as “the premier provider of unbiased business and financial information to financiers and operators/developers in the seniors housing and care industries in order to facilitate the efficient formation of capital.” Short, sweet, and to the point. Also grandiose? Perhaps. But as the product of strategic thinking, it is clearly a vision that points to a unique status for the organization.

To achieve that vision, NIC sees as its mission to establish “the undisputed ‘gold standard’ for strategic information within the field through expanded research, the application of technology, and recognition of [its] fiduciary responsibility as a non-profit education organization.” Here NIC's mission statement, the prelude to and product of strategic planning, is much more operational in nature. It's saying, “we know what we want to be (vision); now let's focus on how to get there (mission).” Both are inextricably intertwined, but stem from different thought processes. Developing goals and objectives now becomes much easier.