Sign up for free
Get a Demo
icon-back

Strategic Planning

Strategy formulation: How to guide

Table of Contents

What is strategy formulation?

Strategy formulation is a process that outlines a measurable and concrete course of action to achieve certain strategic objectives or overcome specific challenges.

Companies follow a strategy formulation process to develop a business plan that will guide their decision-making and help them realize their long-term vision.

Developing a coherent strategy is essential for every organization as it enables aligned allocation of resources in a unified effort towards a shared goal.

Without it, a company’s efforts are fragmented, scattering its resources and missing opportunities.

Download the strategic planning template.  This excel template is 100% free allowing you to build your strategic plan  with an auto-generated final plan output! Download Now

What makes a good strategy

A good strategy addresses the right challenge and is executable.

Identifying the right challenge determines the strategy’s long-term efficacy.

For example, it’s one thing to say Sam Walton broke the conventional wisdom and another that he redefined the meaning of the “store.” Lululemon didn't just make high-quality products, it created a new category by targeting a very niche market in the beginning.

It’s not the wide variety of high-quality drinks that is responsible for Starbucks’ success, but its redesign of the coffee shop experience.

Successful challenge diagnosis considers all of the organization's reality, from resources and internal culture to market forces and competition moves.

Successful strategy implementation separates laggards from market leaders. Even with the best diagnosis, competitive advantage will elude you if the plan doesn’t meet your organization’s capacity to bring it to life. The most important factors are your culture and your resource allocation. 

The former follows this rule: If strategy opposes culture, it loses. It will never get traction. The latter speaks to speed and effectiveness. With poor allocation and strategic management, execution will move slowly and its results will meet an insurmountable ceiling.

3 key elements of an A+ strategy: 

Every effective strategy, when broken down into its fundamental structure, consists of 3 things:

  • Goals: The objectives, targets, and aspirations it serves
  • Metrics: A way to track your progress toward the Goals
  • Actions: The specific way you choose to make that progress

how to formulate strategy graphic

The bigger your organization is, the more complex its competitive strategy can get. However, you can still categorize your strategy’s elements according to these 3 pillars and detect which category needs special attention. Remember - a strategy is only as strong as its weakest link.

Download the strategic planning template.  This excel template is 100% free allowing you to build your strategic plan  with an auto-generated final plan output! Download Now

Strategy formulation: The 5 steps

Strategy formulation is not a complicated planning process, but it should include the five high-level steps below to ensure success:

  1. Understanding your strategy level
  2. Conduct internal & external research
  3. Build the plan backward
  4. Review progress regularly
  5. Take the first step: Implement

1. Understand your strategy level

Depending on the size of your organization, you might need to formulate different plans for each level of management. That way, you’ll be able to make strategic decisions in line with the relevant context.

For example, your resource allocation decisions are very different at your corporate level, where you approach business units as a portfolio than when formulating a business-level strategy. You might have to shift significant resources to pursue a certain opportunity that will starve other business units.

Here are the three strategy levels:

  1. Corporate Level
  2. Business Level
  3. Functional Level

2. Conduct internal and external research

Research is the second step in strategy formulation.

External research

To achieve the best competitive position, you need to analyze your target market, competition, and the business environment you’ll operate and gather crucial customer insights.

Backed by such research, you'll be able to get a clear picture of the market’s conditions, identify the main challenges your customers want solved, and develop relevant strategic goals.

Internal research

Determine internal struggles and your culture’s most powerful positive drivers. Revisit the organizational structure, your company’s mission statement, and the incentive system. Once you have a good grasp of your strategy, align structure and incentives with your plan to facilitate implementation.

Try any combination of the frameworks (including SWOT analysis, Gap analysis, and Core competencies analysis) in our internal analysis guide to ensure you don’t miss out on any crucial internal factors.

3. Build the plan backward

Every strategist strives to choose bold and ambitious organizational objectives (see Thibault Mesqui from Heineken or SafetyCulture’s Hamish Grant).

However, ambitious goals demand aggressive action. You’ll never hit those goals if your strategic plan suggests conservative action or - God forbid - a miraculous 30% increase in production or employee productivity.

How do you determine those aggressive moves or how bold they should be?

Start with the end in mind.

Set those ambitious goals as high as you want with a respective deadline (or duration if they’re long-term goals) and then start building your new strategy backward. Break down your strategic horizons into smaller time increments and figure out what your KPIs and metrics should look like during each interval. Set up milestones. Ground your plan to reality from the beginning, so your actions and decisions support the bold organizational goals.

Tip: Decide on one bold company-wide move. Then allocate resources on the highest level first, so you won’t be tempted to be “fair” and instead support all the initiatives that will somehow contribute to the goal.

4. Review progress regularly

Strategy is iterative, it’s not just about planning and it doesn’t end at execution.

What else is there besides planning and execution? Reviewing. Strategy is continuously evolving and assessing performance is a big part of it. This is a painful headache for large corporations because very few tools accommodate all of the challenges that come with a complex strategy.

Business intelligence tools require specialization and a great deal of time to be effective. Meanwhile, sheets and slides are tough to update and redistribute on time. As a result, managers end up spending more time tracking and updating documents than doing actual work and executing the strategy.

How should you keep track of your strategy’s progress?

Determine your reporting needs

Annual or semi-annual reviews don’t suffice. Depending on your organizational needs, set up recurring meetings across all your teams. Determine beforehand the metrics you’ll be reviewing and when each metric makes sense to be reviewed.

Assess lagging and leading KPIs and finish each meeting with a “next steps” discussion. Feel free to adapt your habits to your needs.

Balance the objective with the subjective

Strategy isn’t just facts, it’s also a story. Your reviewing discussions should start with metrics, objectives, and projects, but they should not be limited to those. Discuss judgment calls, decisions, and priorities.

Balance the facts with the story. Allow your people to express their views more often and you’ll acquire a clearer image of your current situation.

Download the strategic planning template.  This excel template is 100% free allowing you to build your strategic plan  with an auto-generated final plan output! Download Now

The most important step of strategy formulation is the last one.

5. Take the first step: Implement

Long-range planning without short-term action is a nosedive into failure.

Most strategies never leave the port or start their engines. Because there were never any plans on how to do that. So, start your engines by focusing on the first step. Don’t let the strategy discussions die out before you get to implementation steps and, most importantly, the first one.

Why is the first step so important?

Because it builds traction. It builds momentum and demonstrates decisiveness. So, to jumpstart strategy implementation, focus on getting things done and moving things ahead. Let results and execution quality take a back seat until you build enough momentum to integrate implementation with your people’s daily activities.

Free up resources early to leave the port and sustain strategic initiatives during the long voyage of execution.

Difference between formulation and implementation of strategy

In theory, strategy formulation is the development of your strategic plan, while strategy implementation is the process of putting the plan into motion.

Here is the trap with this distinction. You separate strategy from daily operations. As a result, strategy becomes a distinct entity, detached from reality with an intrusive role in people’s work. So, instead of people focusing on organizing their activities around the company’s strategy, they are concerned with it once per week or even less often.

It’s simple, people don’t implement strategy because it doesn’t fit into their schedule.

Operations become business as usual with no strategic references.

Why strategy implementation is more challenging than strategy formulation

It’s not. At least not always.

Strategy implementation becomes difficult when formulation doesn’t take it into account.

It’s that simple.

When the action plan doesn’t identify and take into account the organization’s reality, it’s impossible to implement it. When only the top executives are involved in developing the strategy, nobody else will feel invested in it and thus won’t care to implement it. Strategy implementation is harder than formulation when you believe the 3 myths of strategy:

  1. Strategy is a conceptual exercise living outside the organization's daily activities.
  2. Top-level leadership owns corporate level strategy and employees should not be concerned with it.
  3. Strategy is about planning. Execution will take care of itself.

The best tool for the strategy formulation phase

The Cascade strategy execution platform.

We admit that we might be a bit biased. However, Cascade is the only tool that allows you to plan, manage and track your strategy in one place. It includes dynamic planning, strategy maps that let you monitor your team’s alignment at a glance, and dashboards that take the struggle out of reporting, and exposes your strategy to your people, so you can have candid conversations about it.

Are you ready to move from formulation to implementation? Get in touch with us!

Download the strategic planning template.  This excel template is 100% free allowing you to build your strategic plan  with an auto-generated final plan output! Download Now

Topics:Strategic Planning

Get more insights into all things strategy

Related posts to get you reading