Writing a strategic plan can be a daunting process, even for seasoned strategy professionals. After surviving the chaos that was 2020, businesses and organizations of all sizes have come to understand the importance of having a well-devised strategic plan.
Here at Cascade, we're often asked, "how do I write a strategic plan?" Overall, it seems there's a consensus that writing a strategic plan is a complex and difficult process. However, if you have an intimate knowledge of your business and a clear strategic model to follow, writing a strategic action plan is actually surprisingly easy.
This guide will teach you how to write a strategic plan using a simple model that will help you to define precisely what you want to achieve and how you're going to get there.
This article is part one of our mini-series, "How to Write a Strategic Plan." This first article will focus on giving you a solid strategy model for your plan. Think of it as the foundation for your new strategy. Subsequent parts of the series will show you how to actually create the content for your strategic plan.
- How To Write A Strategic Plan: The Cascade Model (This article)
- How to Write a Good Vision Statement
- How To Create Company Values
- Creating Strategic Focus Areas
- How To Write Strategic Objectives
- How To Create Effective Projects
- How To Write KPIs
Before creating your strategic plan, you need to decide which structure you will use. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of ways to structure a strategic plan. You’ve likely heard of famous strategic models such as OKRs. But beyond the well-known ones, there's also a myriad of other models ranging from the extremely simple to the bewilderingly complex.
The trouble with many of the strategic models out there is that they work reasonably well on paper, but in reality, they don't actually walk you through how to write a strategic plan — or at least one that is truly meaningful to your organization. Here are just a few of the issues we see with many of the most popular strategic models:
- They're too complicated. People get lost in terminology rather than focusing on execution.
- They don’t scale. They work well for small organizations but fail when you try to extend them across multiple teams.
- They're too rigid. They force people to add layers for the sake of layers.
- They're neither tangible nor measurable. They’re great at stating outcomes but lousy at helping you measure success.
- They're not adaptable. As we saw in 2020, circumstances can change quickly. Your model needs to be able to work not only in your current situation, but it must adapt to changing economic landscapes.
In this article, we'll show you a simpler, more effective way to write a strategic plan. We call it the Cascade Strategy Model. While it's not entirely different from some of the most popular strategy models, we find that this approach to the strategic model is simply more effective when it comes to execution than any other model we've tried. That holds true for small organizations right through to multinationals trying to figure out how to write a strategic plan. It's easy to use, and it works.
The Cascade Model
To give you an idea of how a strategic plan following the Cascade Model will look when it's finished, we've created a simple diagram below. It's fairly self-explanatory, but we'll explore the individual components in a moment.
Think of your strategy as a flow chart that reads from top to bottom, with each row a mandatory step before going down to the next one. There is a reason that we called our product 'Cascade' — and that is because strategy needs to not only cascade down throughout your organization, but it itself needs to cascade from a vision statement, to values, focus areas, objectives, etc.
Most of all, the Cascade Model is designed to be execution-ready — in other words, it’s been tried and tested in delivering success far beyond the strategic planning phase. It adds to a successful strategic management process.
Core Elements of Your Strategic Plan
Before we get into how to write a strategic plan, we first need to explore the different components of one.
Your vision statement defines where you want to get to. You can think of it as your mission statement or an executive summary or overview of your entire organization's purpose. Do not start your strategic plan without this. Lots of articles have been written about the value of a good vision statement, but we'll summarize:
- Your vision statement is the anchor that stops you from getting lost at sea (or by the madness caused by Covid, for example).
- It will help tunnel your strategy towards the outcomes and long-term goals that matter the most to your organization.
- Every single thing that you write into your plan from this point onward will ultimately be helping you to get closer to your vision.
One of the biggest blocks to the successful execution of a strategic plan is trying to achieve too much in one go. Creating a vision statement will help you to avoid that trap right from the start. Not only that, but a truly well-written vision statement will provide guidance to and inspiration for your team. It might even help you to attract talent and investment into your organization.
A bike manufacturing company might have a vision statement like:
'To be the premier bike manufacturer in the Pacific Northwest.'
This vision statement clearly articulates where the organization would like to be and the value of the organization. If you're ready to start creating your vision statement, check out How to Write A Good Vision Statement, the second article in our "How To Write A Strategic Plan" mini-series.
Unfortunately, the notion of corporate values has been abused to the point of ridicule over the past century. Volkswagen's corporate values include: "Integrity & Accountability." When it comes to how to write a strategic plan, values represent how you'll behave as an organization as you work towards your vision
Too often, organizations simply throw out words that they think will sound good in a glossy marketing brochure but have little relevance to the real world. Our take on values is subtly different and hopefully somewhat more pragmatic.
Think of values as the enablers to your vision statement. Don't be afraid to be honest about how you want your people to act and think. 2020 provided a good opportunity to test a company's values — the companies that kept to them demonstrated a true reflection of how they operate, whereas companies that struggled internally may have had poorly written values, which affected the overall success of their strategic plans.
However, it can be easy to become over-focused on strategic goals when realizing values. Outcomes matter, but if the way in which you go about achieving them is wrong, the outcomes themselves risk becoming irrelevant. Not only that, but organizations are ultimately nothing more than the sum of the people within them. The need for basic rules about how you want those people to work together is no different than the need for basic rules in the game of soccer. They exist to give your team a common purpose (scoring goals) and to provide boundaries as to what people can to do achieve that purpose (no foul play).
Using the bike manufacturing example from earlier, some good core values would include:
These values reflect the organization's desire to strive to become the leading bike manufacture — but not at any cost. How they get there is also important, and treating employees, customers, and all other stakeholders with compassion and staying accountable is vitally important. When you're ready to start creating some company values, check out our guide, How To Create Company Values.
Your focus areas are the high-level things that you’ll be focusing your efforts towards as you strive towards your vision and final destination. Focus areas should be tighter in scope than your vision statement but not to the level of having any particular metric, time frame, or deadline. Following our manufacturing example above, some good focus areas might include:
- Aggressive growth
- Producing nation's best bikes
- Becoming a modern manufacturer
- Becoming a top place to work
We usually suggest creating between three and five focus areas. Any fewer and they will probably be too vague. Any more, and well...I for one certainly can't focus on more than five things at once!
You absolutely want your people to feel empowered to come up with innovative and creative ways to be successful. But giving them a framework to work in can be hugely helpful.
Well-written focus areas can themselves be inspiring and motivational. They can help unite your organization behind a common purpose. Plus, they can bring a sense of togetherness and belonging, which can help to ease any tensions that arise between teams and colleagues.
The third article in this mini-series walks through How to Write Effective Focus Areas in depth.
Strategic objectives represent what you want to accomplish — they’re reasonably high level, but should still have a deadline attached. Your strategic objectives should align with one or more of your focus areas. Typically, you’ll have between three and six objectives for each focus area.
It's here that for the first time in our journey we need to start being a bit more specific. How specific? Let's take a look at an example of a well written strategic objective:
-Continue top-line growth that outpaces the industry by 31st Dec 2022
This is too specific to be a focus area. Whilst it's still very high level, it indicates what they want to accomplish, and includes a clear deadline. Both these aspects are critical to a good strategic objective.
To be honest, your strategic objectives are the heart and soul of your plan — without them, you have no plan!
The reason they're important and distinct from your projects (see below) is that jumping straight into actions is a sure-fire way to either (a) miss opportunities or (b) lose the connection between your actions and your vision statement.
If you're ready to start creating your strategic objectives, check out article 5 of this mini-series, 'How To Write Strategic Objectives'.
Projects are the actionable steps you will take to accomplish your objectives. They must be extremely specific and contain a deadline and a clear articulation of your actions. Your projects should align with at least one of your strategic objectives and describe how you will actually achieve it. Typically, you will create multiple projects for each strategic objective.
Let's take a look at an example of a well-written project continuing on with our bike manufacturing company using the strategic objective from above:
Continue top-line growth that outpaces the industry by 31st Dec 2022
A good project to link to this could be:
'Expand into the fixed gear market by 31st December 2022'
This is much more specific than the objective it links to, and it clearly details what you will do to achieve the objective.
Projects are the layer of the strategic plan that outlines the tangible actions that people in the organization will take to achieve outcomes.
Another common problem area for strategic plans is that they never quite get down to the detail of what you're actually going to do. It's easy to simply state "we need to grow our business," but without concrete projects, those plans will sit forever within their PowerPoint templates, never to see the light of day after their initial creation.
Learn more about writing effective projects here.
KPIs are how you will measure progress towards your strategic objectives. They're measurable values that show your organization’s progress towards achieving key business objectives. KPIs should be developed in relation to a specific goal or objective. If they're not developed with a specific objective in mind, they run the risk of stealing attention, time, and money from KPIs that actually help to achieve strategic objectives.
You’ll ideally want to include a mixture of both leading and lagging KPIs for each of your objectives.
Key performance indicators are a form of communication in an organization. They allow you to determine whether you're behind, on track for, ahead of, or have already achieved your objectives. They inform business leaders of their organization’s progress towards reaching key business objectives.
If you're ready to start creating KPIs, check out the 6th article in this mini-series, How to Write KPIs - 4 Step Approach.
Here’s a quick infographic to help you remember how everything connects and why each element is critical to creating an effective strategic plan:
Vision - where you want to get to.
Values - how you'll behave on the journey.
Focus Areas - what you'll be focusing on to help your progress.
Objectives - what you want to achieve.
Projects - how you'll achieve them.
KPIs - how you'll measure success.
This simple approach for how to write a strategic plan avoids confusing jargon and has elements that the whole organization can both get behind and understand.
Scaling the Cascade Strategic Framework
One of the issues we highlighted with other strategic models is that they often fail to effectively describe how to scale the model across multiple teams or through multiple layers of the organization. In other words: how to effectively cascade the strategic model throughout your organization.
In an ideal world, you want to have a maximum of two layers of detail underneath each of your focus areas. That means you’ll have a focus area, followed by a layer of objectives. Underneath the objectives, you'll have projects and KPIs on the same layer as each other.
This works well for a single team, but if you want to implement a strategic plan across multiple teams, like a recruitment team under an HR team, what do you do?
Depending on how much time you want to invest in strategic planning, there are two approaches that you can take.
Option 1: Create aligned cascading objectives
This approach involves simply adding lower-level objectives that link to your higher-level objectives, like this:
For each lower-level objective, you simply repeat the Objective - Project - KPI structure as follows:
You can keep doing this as many times as you like, but do be aware that if you have a lot of layers, your strategic plan can get quite messy. Furthermore, the owners of the objectives towards the ‘bottom’ of the plan are managing things that are very far ‘downstream’ from the focus areas they link to. That could create an engagement problem with people struggling to really understand how they contribute to the top levels of the strategic plan.
Because of these challenges, this approach is best suited to smaller organizations that only need to add a couple of extra layers of objectives to their plan to get down to the level of detail they want.
Option 2: Created aligned/nested strategic plans
This approach involves creating a network of aligned strategic plans for each team within your organization. Each plan contains a set of focus areas, one single layer of objectives, each with its own set of projects and KPIs. Something like this:
The key to making this successful is to ensure that the objectives of each of your lower level strategic plans, link directly to the objectives in the plan above it. Doing so ensures that you maintain alignment throughout your organization, but still allows you to cascade your strategy as deep as you want, across a near-infinite number of people.
The other major benefit to this approach is that typically you’ll see much higher levels of engagement in the strategy throughout your organization, as objective owners will be able to clearly see the links between the objectives they own and the focus areas of their ‘nearest’ strategic plan.
How To Write a Strategic Plan in 2021- Conclusion
Let’s take a quick look at how adopting the Cascade Strategic Framework solves the most common issues that people encounter with writing a strategic plan:
- Not too complicated. Terminology is simple to understand and the linkages are clear, without ever deviating from the objectives - project - KPI 'triangle'.
- Scales easily. By linking objectives (either in a single plan or across multiple nested strategic plans) the model scales infinitely without losing clarity or focus.
- Extremely flexible. The model balances the flexibility of linked layers with the minimum requirement of always having an outcome (the objectives), an action (the projects), and a measure (the KPIs).
- Tangible & measurable. By incorporating KPIs directly in the model, you’re forced to think clearly about what success looks like and you’ll always have a relevant set of KPIs to track for your strategy.
When it comes to the question of how to write a strategic plan - you'd be pretty hard-pushed to find a better starting point. The Cascade Strategy Model is inspired by the best models out there already (we like OKRs a lot for example) but is simple, effective, and proven to work in organizations large and small.
Whilst strategic planning is an important part of striving towards success - it’s actually only the beginning. Strategic execution is the part that most organizations struggle with. That’s why we created the Cascade Strategy Model. It’s the culmination of thousands of experiences implementing strategy with our clients (large and small) and we think it’s quite simply the best way to structure your strategic plan - regardless of your industry or size.
If you need a hand implementing any of the above in Cascade, just drop us a line.